The Sermon On the Mount
Living Honest Lives
As we continue our series of messages from the Sermon On the Mount, today we come to a passage where Jesus says we should not take any oaths. Hear the word of the Scripture this morning –
Does Jesus mean we are not to take an oath in a courtroom? Does he mean an elected official should not be sworn into office? Some people have taken Jesus quite literally on this point. Quakers and Mennonites, for instance, refuse to take any type of oaths because of this passage. President Herbert Hoover, who was a Quaker, did not take the oath of office when he became president; instead he “affirmed” his presidency.
(http://www.classroomhelp.com/lessons/Presidents/hoover.html. You can watch a very grainy version at this link – http://tvcoliseum.forumotion.com/t1216-herbert-hoover-takes-the-oath-of-office-1929)
I don’t think Jesus was forbidding people from taking an oath of office or being sworn in as a witness in a court case. What Jesus is speaking about is the importance of living honest lives, both in our words and our actions.
Four students decided to skip their first class of the school day. They arrived just as the class ended and told the teacher they were late because they had a flat tire. The teacher said, that’s fine, but they missed a quiz that morning. The four said they must get to their next class but the teacher said it would only take a moment, as there was only one question on the quiz. The teacher gave them each a piece of paper and a pencil, had them sit in the corners of the room and said here is your question – which tire was flat?
Honesty. What an important word.
In my hometown we had a movie theater, and the concession stand had a sign that always had an inspirational saying. The only one I remember is no one has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.
So many things in life depend upon honesty and a person’s commitment to keeping their word. If you are negotiating to buy a car from someone and they tell you they only drove it to church on Sunday and to the store once a week you are counting on their honesty. If someone says you can confide in me, I won’t tell anyone, you trust the person to be honest about keeping their word and not repeat what you have spoken to them in confidence.
But we live in a day and age of great skepticism when it comes to honesty. We are becoming increasingly skeptical about whether or not we are hearing – and seeing – the truth. And, to be honest, our skepticism is sometimes justified. Our financial system, which is based on trusting those who make the financial deals, has been greatly damaged because of a lack of honesty about some of the financial instruments that were sold and some of the deals that were made. We assume that some advertising is misleading, and some of it is. Did you see the news story about two ads being banned in England because they used digital enhancing and were thus deemed to be misleading? There’s some irony there, isn’t there? Buy this product so you can look like this digitally enhanced picture, which is the only way anyone can really look this way!
And the past few weeks have made us even more skeptical about what we hear out of Washington.
Remembering that the Sermon On the Mount is in the context of relationships, Jesus moves into this discussion about taking oaths. It was a discussion prompted by the rampant dishonesty in his time. Jesus seems to be speaking against taking an oath when he Jesus says to simply let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no,” “no.”
It would be nice if that were possible, wouldn’t it? Imagine handing over a large sum of money to someone who promises to invest it for you. Instead of signing a contract they simply take the money and say trust me. We would want a stronger guarantee of honesty, wouldn’t we?
Jesus was calling attention to the rampant dishonesty in his day. In the time of Jesus many oaths were designed to give the appearance of professing honesty, when in fact the oath was really a way of appearing to be honest without actually having to be honest. Most oaths were actually designed to give one a way out of being honest. It was the perfection of a nonbinding oath, of appearing to be genuine without really being genuine.
When Jesus says you have heard it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord” he was condemning the twisting of the law to allow for dishonesty. The idea was, any oath that did not invoke God’s name was not really binding. So I could say to you I solemnly swear I will not tell anyone about the private matters you just shared with me, and because I didn’t mention God it would by acceptable for me to break my promise and tell everyone what I heard. It was a religiously sanctioned way of being dishonest.
Jesus is saying that honesty should underwrite what we say and what we do. When he says let your “yes” be “yes,” and your “no,” “no” he is saying that honesty should be so evident in our lives that our word is a sufficient guarantee to people. But that level of trust is not earned overnight. It takes time and it takes proving to people that we can be people of our word.
And it’s not just words; it’s the general presentation we give of life. The great temptation we face is to present a life that appears to be very together when it’s really not very together. And when enough people do this, the impression is given that if your life is not together you are the one who is out of step and unusual. The truth, brokenness in life is the norm. If you have brokenness and struggle in your life you are not unusual – you are normal. Every life has brokenness and struggle and I understand that we don’t always want that broadcast to everyone but pretending that it doesn’t exist removes us from the power to heal that struggle and brokenness.
One of the important parts of the gospel is that it helps us to be honest with ourselves. Part of the purpose of worship is in helping us to be honest with ourselves. This is one of the reasons why I’m not a fan of the idea that we can worship by ourselves out in the woods or in a fishing boat. I’m not saying you can’t, but we are called to be part of a community of faith in part because of honesty. If I’m sitting out in the woods by myself or in a boat by myself it’s very easy to avoid being honest with myself. But if I am part of a community of faith I am going to be challenged to look very hard at my life and to be honest with myself, with others, and with God.
It’s not to condemn, though; it is to heal. Jesus never minded the brokenness and struggle and failure in people’s lives. Jesus loved people whose lives were full of brokenness; he embraced them, he dined with them, he hung around with them, and, he died for them.
What Jesus didn’t like was dishonesty and deception, especially the kind of dishonesty and deception where one seeks to present a false picture of who they really are, which is the textbook definition of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is trying to get people to believe you are someone you are really not. It’s distasteful and people can generally see right through it.
One of the great tragedies is that even in church it’s difficult to maintain a level of honesty about our lives. It’s just easier to talk around many of the difficulties in life, and besides, we don’t want people to think less of us because they find out we have struggles in our lives.
When I took a preaching class years ago one of our textbooks was the book Dress for Success. Having a neat appearance is one thing, but we spent so much time on how to properly present ourselves and on lessons about our appearance that it seemed there was a greater emphasis on appearance than reality. The line between being our genuine selves and an illusory self seemed to be blurred, and if there is one place we ought to do away with illusions about who we are it is within the Body of Christ.
Jesus said I am the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). The truth. The truth is that Jesus will take us as we are, with all of our failures and our struggles. Come, and embrace the truth of Jesus.