YES, YES, or NO, NO
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What does it mean to live as people of the truth? What does it mean to live as people of truth? In his book, James Bryan Smith writes about an encounter he had once with someone at a party. They were both academics – university professors. “I love to speak with fellow academics” was how the other person opened, which might have given one pause right there. He went on to speak about how Nathaniel Hawthorne was his favourite author and didn’t Smith agree. Smith had never actually read any Nathaniel Hawthorne but said: “Oh yes most definitely.” The man went on and started talking about irony in The Scarlett Letter and Smith was of course trapped at this point, trying to make up things and give little marks of assent and understanding when in reality he had no idea what the other man was talking about.
Living as people of the truth.
I learned a lesson in this at a very young age. I was 10 years old and travelling one summer to Northern Ireland with my parents and my sister. I had some Canadian dollars to change into sterling and went to the kiosk at the airport to do that. At the time the exchange was around 2 to 1 – two dollars to buy one pound. I had something like 40 dollars. I came back from the booth marvelling at my good fortune as I had come away with something like 60 pounds! My mum and dad told me I had to go back and have them correct the error.
Living in the truth. Living in the Kingdom of God.
Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No.”
Jesus is once again talking about the spirit of the law. We’re in the “You have heard that is was said…but I say to you” section. Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He came to show and enable what it is to live in the Kingdom of God and to affirm what it looks like to live in the Kingdom of God.
To live in the Kingdom of God is to live in truth.
Someone has said that we lie or withhold truth for two basic reasons – to gain something for ourselves or to avoid punishment. Ten year old me had gained something due to the error made by the person working at the currency exchange booth. You can picture the classic scene of a child sitting on the kitchen floor who has been into a bag of flour and flour is everywhere including all over the child and when the parent comes into the kitchen the response is “It wasn’t me!” We want to gain something for ourselves or we want to avoid something bad for ourselves, as in Smith’s story – he wanted to be well thought of by the other person.
It’s something that comes so naturally. We do it all the time. We’ll get together soon, we say. I’m fine, we say. It’s something that occurs in the animal kingdom too it seems, even with man’s best friend. I remember living in the country up in Bruce Co. and our dog was not allowed to go over to the neighbour’s yard. He knew this yet persisted in going. I remember driving home and seeing the dog in the neighbour’s yard. When he heard the car he quickly went into the adjacent field, ran along for a while and then came out on the road behind the car! I was really here the whole time! Amazing. It’s something that comes so naturally yet is so against how we were created that we react physiologically to lying with our tells and our susceptibility to lie detector tests. We react physically!
We’ve been talking about false narratives through this series. There’s a false narrative that says “It’s all about me.” It’s not really all about you. It’s not really all about me. There’s a false narrative that says “My well being is #1.” Again it’s not all about you and me. There’s a false narrative that says we have to be perfect. Jesus says seek the kingdom of God above all else. Seek love and mercy and justice and righteousness and compassion. Jesus welcomes us into this Kingdom just as we are. We rest in this Kingdom secure in God’s love.
In doing so we hear Jesus’ words. Again you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.”
What is going on here? First of all, Jesus is not talking about bad language. He’s not talking about swearing. There’s a reference to the 3rd commandment here, which talks about not taking God’s name in vain. This is not simply avoiding saying “Jesus Christ!” frivolously, but also pertained to making vows in God’s name and honouring them. Lev 19:12 goes like this – “And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.” Do what you said you were going to do, in other words. Live in the truth.
Jesus is all about what the law was about. The problem in Jesus’ day is that people were using this law to make up loopholes. Oaths were taken in the name of other things that were seen as non-binding or not so strong or “Well I didn’t swear by God so it’s not that big a deal if I break it.” These included by heaven, by earth, by Jerusalem, or by one’s own head.
We get this right? It’s like saying “Swear to God” or “I swear on my mother’s grave” or my kids’ lives or any of the things that you hear people swearing on. It was about finding a loophole in the law – like crossing your fingers behind your back when making a promise. It seems something very inherent to humanity in our fallenness, doesn’t it? Even children understand it. Jesus speaks out very strongly against such things. Later on, in Matthew, he’ll be calling scribes and Pharisees blind guides for the rules they had made up – “Woe to you blind guides who say ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ You blind fools!”
It’s all of God after all. Heaven is the throne of God. Earth is God’s footstool. Jerusalem is the city of the great King. It’s all of God. Even the whiteness or blackness of our hair is of God. We can cover it up sure, but underneath the cover is this truth.
Live as people of the truth. This is an all of life proposition. I remember once having a lesson with our young people at Blythwood and we were on the subject of lying and someone said “Pastors don’t lie” and I made kind of an “Oohhhh I’m not so sure we want to be saying things like that” face. At that point the point was amended to “Pastors don’t lie in church” and we went with that because often we need some sort of loophole.
It’s not just about not lying in church, of course. This is an all of life proposition because the Kingdom of Heaven is for all of life. Live as people of integrity. Like virtue, we might think this a quaint idea but rather old fashioned, particularly in the face of the “It’s all about you” messaging with which we are bombarded. The origin of integrity is “intact”. I like the engineering definition of the word, like when you talk about the integrity of a structure. Whole. Intact. Undivided. This is the goal. May we ask God to help us, to form us by the Holy Spirit into people of integrity. To live undivided. To not compartmentalize Christ. At that point, there is no need to invoke oaths to let others know that we are indeed actually telling the truth. Truth as a way of life. As someone has said – “Oaths that invoke penalties on oneself for violating them are not necessary for people of truth.” So let your yes be yes and your no be no.
Two things I want to mention before we get into some more positive aspects of speaking. The first is the way that this verse has been interpreted by some to mean never take an oath. The Quakers were advocates of this. The Quakers were a group that came out of England in the middle of the 17th century. They said one should never take an oath. I would think that this kind of rule-making is not in the spirit of what Jesus is talking about. I wouldn’t have a problem taking an oath by God or in God’s name. The Quakers talked about plain speech, which I think is good though. They were actually the people who invented the concept of a price tag. Prior to this, pricing was all about haggling and bargaining, inflating and deflating prices on purpose. They came up with the idea of charging what something was worth and the price was the price. Interesting. Plain speech.
The other thing to note here is – Does this mean that a follower of Christ never lies? I’m going to shock you here maybe. Of course not. Again we must always remember that Jesus is speaking the law of love. The law of mercy and justice. One example I read describes a case where you’re home one day and you hear frantic knocking at the door. A woman stands there terrified and pleading for you to let her in as her husband has attacked her and is threatening to kill her. You do so and she hides in a closet. Two minutes later you open the door again to a knife-wielding man demanding to know if you have seen his wife. You tell him you haven’t, of course. What does mercy and justice and love demand?
Of course being people who live in truth doesn’t only mean we focus on not doing something. It also means speaking the truth in love. These are some of Paul’s instructions to the people of Ephesus. Eph 4:15. Eph 4:25. Eph 4:29. Speaking the truth in love, of course, does not mean prefacing something with “I say this in Christian love” before we hammer someone with something. Have you ever done that, or been the recipient of it? It’s like the Christian version of “Don’t take this the wrong way…” or “I don’t mean to offend…” but…
Speak the truth to one another to build one another. Speak things of the Truth. Encourage. Out of the same mouth come blessings and curses. Bless one another. Build one another up. Someone has described it as words of kingdom encouragement and kingdom kindness. Remind one another of the great truths of the kingdom. You are a child of the King. The value of words given with gentleness born out of love. The law of love is what we’re talking about here week after week. Kingdom kindness. Sitting with someone who is grieving and simply saying “I don’t know what to say but my heart is breaking.” Reminding someone of a Kingdom truth. Encouraging someone. We’ve left cards in the bulletin this week. I would encourage you to use them. To use our words to bless one another and build one another up. In doing so may God use us to help one another live as children of the Kingdom, and children of the truth. Amen