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Tell the Truth
Matthew 5: 33-37
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 and follow along as I read verses 33-37. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
33 Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:
34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:
35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.
36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
The wealthy oil tycoon lay on his deathbed, while his pastor assured him of Gods healing power. “Pastor,”¨ gasped the desperately sick man, ”if God heals me, I will give the church a million dollars.” Miraculously, the man revived and within a few short weeks was out of the hospital. One day, several months later, he and the pastor met on the sidewalk. “You know,”¨ the pastor said, “when you were in the hospital dying, you promised to give the church a million dollars if you got well. We have not received that yet.
“Did I say that?”¨ the tycoon asked. “I guess that goes to show how sick I really was!” That was a man who needed a lesson in integrity.¨
Former President George W. Bush Senior once absolutely promised us: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Former President Bill Clinton promised, “I did not have sex with that woman.” Our current president promised us that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It is a pity we do not have some sort of integrity shot for politicians.
Did you hear the story about the busload of politicians driving down a country road. The bus ran off the road and crashed into a tree in an old farmer’s field. The farmer went over to see what had happened. He then proceeded to dig a hole and bury the politicians. A few days later, the local sheriff came out, saw the crashed bus and asked the farmer where all the politicians had gone. The farmer said he buried them. The sheriff asked, "The coroner wasn’t here. Are you sure they were all dead?" The farmer replied, "Well, some of them said they weren’t, but you know how them politicians lie."
But not only politicians lie. Our elected leaders only reflect the larger society. For example, big business is not doing very well with truth-telling. Upstate South Carolina has been rocked by the Carolina Investors scandal in which hundreds of people lost their savings when tens of millions of dollars mysteriously vanished, but that is small potatoes compared to the Enron scandal and the World.com debacle and the Martha Stewart trial.
Sometimes we lament our current condition saying that people have less integrity today than in past generations. Actually there is no evidence for that. Telling the truth has been a problem for every generation. That is why people have always been required to take oaths and vows. But that does not help much because dishonest people can always find a way to avoid keeping an oath.
As kids, when we were making a promise, we would say, “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” That was an oath, but if you crossed your fingers, so we said, you did not have to keep that oath. Now you might say that is kid stuff, but that kind of kid stuff was standard practice in Jesus’ day.
In Jewish practice, the more closely associated the oath with the name of God, the more likely a person would have to keep the oath. For example, if you only swore by your right hand, you did not need to be too concerned about keeping that oath. Swearing by heaven and earth was not binding, nor was swearing by Jerusalem, but if you turned toward Jerusalem and swore an oath, that was binding, because that was turning toward the presence of God in the temple. It all seems a little weird to us. It seemed very weird to Jesus. In Matthew 23:16-17, Jesus has some further thoughts on this subject, saying, “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! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred?”
Here’s an example of how that might have worked out in Jesus time. Say you sold a piece of property, and the buyer gave you a modest down payment, along with a solemn oath to pay the rest, and the deed to the property is transferred. Time goes by, a lot of time, and you receive no money. Finally you hunt him up and say, “Where is the rest of my money.” He says, “I do not owe you any money.” You say, “What are you talking about? You only gave me a down payment. We agreed you would pay me in full later on. You swore to pay by the temple!” So you take this before the council, and the council says to the buyer, “Did you swear to pay this man in full for the property?” And the buyer says, “I did swear by the temple, but not by the gold of the temple.” “Well,” says the council, “there’s nothing we can do about that. Everyone knows swearing by the temple is a non-binding oath. Case dismissed.”
Now obviously this was a dishonest scam, which brought all religion into disrepute, and that was one thing that Jesus was not going to stand for. The things of God were sacred to Christ, and to see them misused was more than he could bear.
To make a modern application, the church is sacred to Christ, and when he sees the church used in a dishonest way, it is more than he can bear. The greatest problem the church has in our society today is that the church has lost credibility.
I am going to tell you a little story that happened when I was teenager. I hesitate to tell this story because it does not cast me in a good light, but let the chips fall where they may. I was living in Ninety Six, SC, and there was a revival at one of the local churches. I had a friend who was thinking about going into the ministry, and he convinced me and several other teenagers to go to the revival. Now at the time, I did not believe God or Christ so, I was not at all receptive to what the minister had to say, and I do not remember a word he said, but I do remember that when he got down to the invitation that he asked everyone to close their eyes in prayer and while we were praying, he asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to receive Christ as Savior. And he said, "I see that hand, thank you. I see that hand. Yes, I see that hand." But, since I did not believe, I did not close my eyes. We were sitting at the rear and I could see the whole congregation. Not a soul raised their hand. Now I realize that I was not supposed to be looking, and you can criticize me for that, but I did not believe anyway at that time, but that minister lied. I know he had good intentions. He was just trying to encourage others to raise their hands. It does not matter. The last thing the church needs is someone lying about people being saved.
And again, the worst sins of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were not their sexual sins—what was most destructive was the lies they told trying to cover up their sins—and because of church scandals like that, plenty of people in the United States are convinced that all the church is about is building buildings and pleading for money. We can say that is not the case. We can say that we are here to honor Jesus Christ and serve people, but they will be hesitant to believe us because they have heard Christians speak words that were proved not to be true, and now they do not believe anything we say.
Do you realize that all the atheists in the world could never have dealt a serious blow to the church, but we have done it for them, we have wounded the church of Christ because sometimes, and it only takes a few times, we have not been the truthtelling church and the truthtelling people Jesus calls us to be.
Now I understand why we find it easy to lie. This is a true story. A woman had gone shopping. When she returned to her car, she discovered that she had locked the keys in the car. She went back inside the mall, and called her husband to come with another set of keys. She then went back to the car. While she was waiting for her husband, she decided to check the other doors of the car. One of the back doors was unlocked. Knowing her husband was already on his way and knowing what he would say if she called him back and told him about belatedly discovering the open car door, she simply opened the unlocked door, pressed the lock down, and slammed it shut, and never told her husband any better. I guess we could call this a lie of omission. She never actually told a lie, she just never admitted to the truth.
But why did she lock the unlocked door? Because she was embarrassed. We lie most of the time to avoid embarrassment, to avoid looking bad. We want people to think well of us, and sometimes the truth does not show us in a good light, so we shade the truth, or we put our spin on the truth, we lie.
And the sad thing is that lying usually only complicates matters and makes us worse off. Like the young American who was sent to Ireland for a year. When he left, his fiancee gave him a harmonica. She said, "I want you to learn to play this to keep your mind off those Irish girls." So he wrote her often, telling her he was practicing the harmonica every night. After a year she met him at the airport, he grabbed her to kiss her, but she pushed him back and said, "Before you kiss me, I want to hear you play the harmonica." I hope for his sake that he was not lying in those letters.
Again, Paul Harvey told a story of some young men who were having a test in school and were late to class. Solemnly the four high school boys entered the classroom and told their teacher they were late due to a flat tire. The sympathetic teacher smiled and told them it was too bad they had missed a test that morning, but she was willing to let them make it up. She gave them each a piece of paper and a pencil and sent them to four corners of the room. Then she told them they would pass the test if they could answer one question: Which tire was flat?
I hope those young men were not lying about the flat tire, for their sake. We need to take what Jesus says in these verses seriously for our sake.
The question for us is: Do we play fast and loose with the truth? Do we make promises that we do not really intend to keep? Do we say yes to things just to get people off our backs, with no real intention of carrying out what we said? For example, if I had a $1 for every time I have been told by someone that they would be at church on Sunday, I would be wealthy.
I heard about a preacher that told everyone to read Joshua 25 for next week’s sermon. When Sunday came, the preacher asked all those who read Joshua 25 to raise their hand, and many hands went up. The preacher told all who did not raise their hand that they could go home because today’s sermon was about lying. He then added that the book of Joshua has only 24 chapters. Ouch! Those folks need to study our verses today.
According to William Barclay’s commentary on Matthew we have in these verses from Matthew 5 a great eternal truth. We cannot divide up our lives and let God into this part of our life but not into that part. There cannot be one kind of language in the Church and another kind of language in the shipyard or the factory or the office; there cannot be one standard of conduct in the Church and another standard of conduct in the business world. God is everywhere. God is the source of life. God is in every activity of our life. God hears not only the words that are spoken in his name; God hears all words. God is in every transaction. God is always present, so all our promises are made in God’s presence.
The way Jesus puts it is that God owns everything, so if we swear by Jerusalem, the temple, the heaven, the earth, or whatever, that we are making an oath before God. The reason that we are not to swear is because there is nothing that we actually control or own, so there is nothing by which we can rightfully swear by.
Now let us not go off on a tangent here. This does not prohibit legal proceedings. It does not mean that a Christian cannot swear an oath. Some people, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, insist that these verses mean that it is wrong to go into court, and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." They maintain that a Christian should never take a vow of any type.
That is not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus' objection is not to the oaths, but to deceit. He is concerned about telling the truth. A Dr. Seuss story is titled, “Horton Hatches an Egg.” It is the tale of an elephant who promises to sit on an egg and hatch it for this bird. As the days and weeks go by, Horton just keeps on sitting there. All of his friends encourage him to forget his promise and play with them, but Horton said, "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, an elephant is faithful, 100%." Jesus tells us to learn a lesson from Horton. Jesus says, say what you mean, and mean what you say.
Abraham Lincoln is a good example to us. At the age of twenty-four, Lincoln served as the postmaster of New Salem, Illinois, for which he was paid an annual salary of $55.70. Even then, twenty-four years before he entered the White House, the rail-splitter was showing the character that earned him the title of "Honest Abe." The New Salem post office was closed in 1836, but it was several years before an agent arrived to settle accounts with ex-postmaster Lincoln, who was a struggling lawyer not doing very well. The agent informed him that $17 was due the government. Lincoln crossed the room, opened an old trunk and took out a yellow cotton rag, bound with a string. Untying it, he spread out the cloth and there was the $17. He had been holding it untouched for all these years. "I never use any man’s money but my own," he said.
That is honesty in both word and deed. How about this one. In Chicago, 1929, a 26 year old government agent named Eliot Ness formed an elite team of nine incorruptible men to bring down Al Capone’s criminal empire. At the time, Ness was making $2800 a year working for the government. One day a young man walked into his office and handed Ness an envelope with two one thousand dollar bills and promised this weekly if he would lay off Capone. Ness sent the money and the messenger back. He then called a press conference and told the story of Capone’s attempted bribe and his response to it. The next day, headlines read "Ness and his men are untouchable.” Thus, they became known as “the untouchables.” They restored credibility to law enforcement in Chicago at a time when it was widely believed that every cop in the city was on the take from Capone.
Christ calls us to be untouchables. We are to have integrity in word and deed. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/12/04