For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On November 15 we considered the words of the sermon pertaining to oaths and vows as found in Matthew 5:33-37 while also reading from James 5:12.
If you were to drive south on route 25 from Albuquerque to El Paso, and at about the halfway point you felt the need for a comfort stop, you might find yourself pulling into the Shell filling station in a town called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
If you did this, and asked the attendant how in the world a town in New Mexico came to be called Truth or Consequences, he would tell you that in 1950 one of the most popular entertainment programs in the nation offered to air its broadcast from the first hamlet in these United States that was willing to change its name. Hot Springs, New Mexico leaped at the opportunity, and ever since then has been legally known as Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the county seat for Sierra County.
Truth or Consequences was the first game show to ever air on television, and it was broadcast on television or radio from 1940 until 1978. On the show, each contestant would come onstage and be given approximately two seconds to answer a ridiculous question. If the contestant could not answer in that time, “Beulah the Buzzer” sounded and the contestant would be forced to participate in some sort of a crazy stunt or get a pie in the face.
Although the program was called Truth or Consequences, the premise and humor of the show came from the fact that the host created a situation wherein it was impossible to tell the truth. The questions were so awkwardly worded or trivial that it was a virtual certainty that no truth would ever be told – and the audience got to laugh at the contestants as they rode unicycles or sang with seals or other such nonsense.
For a couple of months now we’ve been exploring Jesus’ teaching as found in the Sermon on the Mount. After laying out the “ground rules” for faithful living in the Beatitudes, Jesus has begun to outline a series of expectations for his followers. In so doing, he calls them – and us – to a life that is shaped by humility, service, and a refusal to manipulate other people to serve our own ends. Today, he lays out the importance of telling the truth.
Verses 33-37 are evidently a response to some teachings of the religious leaders of his day about which vows were considered “sacred” and which were not. In other words, there was some discussion about which oaths and promises had to be kept and which were free to be discarded if they became inconvenient. In which circumstances is it permissible to go back on one’s word? Which oaths are iron-clad and unbreakable?
In response to questions like that, Jesus simply says, “None of that for you. There are no oaths and no vows. Swear nothing.”
Why would Jesus say this? Because an oath can only exist in the presence of the possibility of a lie. If I say, “seriously, I promise – this is the honest-to-goodness-truth,” then I am allowing for the reality that at other times, when I open my mouth what comes out is something other than the honest-to-goodness truth. “I swear on a stack of bibles” or “I promise you on my mother’s grave” are merely ways of communicating to you that much of the time, I may be dishonest and unreliable, but now, I really, really, really mean it.
Using oaths and vows in the way that Jesus’ contemporaries did is a way of shaping reality so that I am in control; I manipulate the truth to my own advantage in precisely the ways that Jesus forbids the manipulation of people.
Some Christians have read these verses and taken them quite literally. These believers refuse to take oaths of any sort – and in fact the constitution of the United States guarantees people the right to “affirm” rather than “swear” in at least four different places. Whether it’s offering testimony in court or being sworn in as President of the USA, many people have been unable to say “I solemnly swear, so help me God.”
Other people have taken these verses to mean that any form of deception at any time is a clear violation of God’s intentions for humanity. In her book The Hiding Place, a Dutch woman named Corrie Ten Boom describes her family’s practice of hiding Jews and other fugitives from the Nazi storm troopers. She recalls the day that her niece answered the door and when the Gestapo asked about whether there were any fugitives in the home, the young girl stammered a bit but eventually told the Nazis that those whom they sought were under the kitchen table. She did so because, she said, it was a sin to lie – even to Nazis.
Someone else might employ this same logic today in this fashion: you’re at a party and one of the guests is clearly drunk out of his mind. He staggers over to you and says, “Do you have my car keys? Where are they?” A literal reading of this part of the sermon might lead you to feel as though you are obliged to hand the keys over to the one who is intoxicated, simply because he asks you if you have them.
On the other hand, however, a quick glance through scripture reveals a number of places where a lie is celebrated or rewarded. When the Egyptian Pharaoh commanded the Hebrews to kill all the baby boys, for instance, the midwives named Shiphrah and Puah report that there are only girls… and are blessed by God for that. A Canaanite woman named Rahab lies about the presence of Hebrew soldiers in her home and is rewarded in a significant way. And when the three wise men showed up to worship the infant Christ, King Herod made them promise to come and tell him where the baby could be found – a promise that they did not keep when they discovered who Jesus really was.
What is Jesus’ intent in these verses? Would he condemn the midwives, or Rahab, or the wise men as being dishonest? Or is there a deeper ethic to which he invites us?
It seems to me that the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to give shape to a community that is trustworthy. Jesus is giving us practices that will create people who know that they can rely on each other and who will act towards what is right. This is a community wherein the manipulation of truth for personal gain is unknown.
As is made clear in the Beatitudes, Jesus’ conversation here is rooted in the presumption that people are in a covenantal relationship and are committed to treating each other as God intends. If that is the case, then, we do well to remember that Jesus’ summons for truthfulness is rooted first and foremost in the ways that God’s people treat each other as we seek to live as a community that is shaped by covenant and integrity.
Having said that, then, I’d like to make a few comments about truth and its consequences.
One of the things we need to remember about truthfulness is that it is a gift and not a weapon. When I speak the truth to you or about you, it ought to be a benediction – literally, a “good word”. That doesn’t always happen, does it? Too often, followers of Jesus use the cloak of “truth” as an excuse to attack someone else. We hear mean and derisive comments followed by a shrug and someone saying, “Hey, it’s only the truth…” Such conversation has no place in the Christian community.
There will be times when I have to tell you some hard things about yourself or our world, but when I do so, I need to make sure that you understand that the reason I’m telling you those things is to encourage you and to build up the community.
Another way of saying this is that I am called to be true with you and true for you and sometimes true to you – but never true at you. Can you imagine yourself hurling a gift at me – throwing it in my face and saying, “Here you go, Dave – enjoy this!”? In the same way, it is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus to walk up to someone and unload a whole bellyful of truth just to make yourself feel better. We are each called to assess our motives in situations like this: if we are setting out to nitpick and criticize and feel superior about ourselves, then we ought to simply shut up. Yet if the ultimate goal is the enhancement of relationship and mutual growth, then I can offer even difficult comments in a spirit of generosity and humility, risking myself even as I ask you to be vulnerable to me.
Another thing we’ve got to remember about the truth is that as an offering, it is voluntary. That is to say that a posture of truth requires me to answer questions that you have not asked as often as I respond to those you have. Another word for this is “transparency”: a part of living truthfully is that I am unwilling to hide anything.
There have been times when I have gravely hurt other people not so much by outright lies, but by a refusal to share the entire story. When I manage the information I have concerning my thoughts, my feelings, my time, my hopes, then I am being less than truthful with you. There have been times when I have sought to justify myself by saying something like, “You never asked me about such and such”, but I’ve only done so because I was looking for a way to avoid speaking falsely; there’s no way that you can call that kind of manipulation of words truth-telling.
There are many times in interpersonal relationships where the truth requires an initiative and a sharing; an openness and vulnerability. If I find myself paralyzed by a fear that’s come up after a visit to the doctor’s office, or profoundly irritated by a situation at work, or deeply troubled by an event in the community, then I am being less than honest if I do not find a way to offer that part of myself to someone in the community.
Truthful speech of this nature produces the fruit of dependability in our lives. When we are honest about what we say and how we say it, people are more likely to see us as reliable in other areas. When we establish a pattern of integrity, those with whom we are called to serve are better able to open up to us. Truthfulness leads to dependability and then dependability brings us to a place of significant trust.
When Jesus sits on that hillside and invites his followers to be truthful, he is calling them and us to engage each other at a deep level. We are invited to become a community that is unflinching in our commitment to seek the welfare of all; a people who – with our neighbors – are open to an earnest consideration of what it means to be created, called, and commissioned by God as we speak for justice and compassion.
The only way to become that kind of community is be trustworthy and dependable. Any testimony that we offer is valued only as we demonstrate ourselves to be persons of integrity.
Reliability. Trustworthiness. Integrity. There is only one way to get those things: by telling the truth, over and over and over again. By offering the truth as a gift and seeking to be transparent in our dealings with others.
I know, I really do, that it’s possible to live otherwise, but the consequences of that are far worse than a pie in the face.
The first and one of the longest-running game shows on television created a reality wherein everybody knew that it was virtually impossible to tell the truth. Nobody every watched that show thinking that there was any chance that there would be truth. That’s how we live far too much of the time.
If we are serious about living life the Jesus way, it will be impossible not to tell the truth. When Jesus was speaking about himself to these same people in John 14, he said that he was the way, the truth, and the life. If he is the truth, and I am called to be as he is, then what option do I have but to seek to live gently and truly in the place where he puts me?