I remember reading an article once that said that society simply could not operate without lying. The way we live depends on lying. Society simply couldn’t function if we always told the truth.
One blogger says that she simply cannot conceive of a world without lies. She asks what would happen if we all had a little set of traffic lights on our heads. When we were telling the truth (or what we sincerely believed to be the truth) the green light would shine. When we were telling an outright lie, the red light would shine. When we were fudging things or not telling the whole truth or not being completely sincere, the orange light would shine. Then she asks, “Can you imagine what the world would be like… I just can’t. It would mean that the human race would have to reinvent itself, start from scratch, learn to live in a society where little white lies or monumental dishonesties wouldn’t have a place, and I just can’t think how it would all work out in this day and age.” (http://elena.hubpages.com/hub/world-without-lies)
For example, (and this is her example, not mine) a woman goes shopping with a friend who is “not so slim”. Now there is a half-truth. The truth is “fat”. The second woman goes into the changing rooms and comes out in a bright red dress that is way too tight and way too short – and asks your opinion.
What would be the green light answer? The red light answer? The orange light answer?
Sometimes we tell red light lies – things we know to be not true. But more often they are orange-light lies – half truths. We do it to keep ourselves out of trouble or to keep someone else out of trouble. We do it to protect people’s feelings. We do it to maintain an image about ourselves – but it is only an image, not the truth. We do it to create a perception about someone else – someone we want to hurt or to disadvantage. Sometimes we fail to tell the truth simply by remaining silent. We could have clarified something but we didn’t because we wanted to leave an untrue impression. We tell people we will do things and then don’t.
All of these things are just part of the way society operates and we expect it. Could you have a society in which people consistently told the truth? Could relationships survive complete honesty?
Chris asked a friend recently and if he knew if another mutual friend had applied for a job. He said, “I haven’t talked to her.” But, in fact, he is her referee. He knew that she had applied. He was probably telling the truth – probably they had emailed each other – but it wasn’t the whole truth. But is it legitimate that he didn’t tell the whole truth? Does society require that we sometimes don’t tell the whole truth?
The Readers’ Digest 2014 New Zealand poll of the most trusted occupations showed that the top 5 were 1) firefighters, 2) paramedics, 3) rescue volunteers, 4) nurses and 5) pilots. Doctors came in at Number 6. Teachers and scientists were 11th equal. Clergy (of all religions) were 39th behind lawyers and airport baggage handlers. Can you guess what the five least trusted professions were? Car salespeople came in at 46th. Politicians tied with sex-workers at 47th=. Telemarketers and door-to-door salespeople were 49th=.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were, of course, scrupulously honest people. They were the paragons of law-keeping. They observed even minute details of the law. The Ten Commandments said, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.” They emphasised their honesty by making oaths, swearing solemnly to do what they had said. They knew the Old Testament scriptures about not breaking an oath. Honesty is fundamental to character and lying is despicable. Lying was unthinkable for these pillars of society.
Wrong! Yes, they knew the law but they had also worked out sophisticated ways of being able to lie. If an oath was made in the name of God, then it had to be kept. But if it was made in some other name, then the oath-taker was not bound by it. And so you could make an impressive-sounding oath, swearing by heaven or by the Temple, for example, and it didn’t technically use the name of God, so it wasn’t binding.
Jesus challenged that. As with all of these examples in chapter 5, He quotes what the people have heard. His words in v.33 are not a quote from anywhere in the Old Testament but they are an accurate summary of the Old Testament teaching. Do not break your oaths. Fulfil to the Lord any vows you have made.
But then Jesus said, “Do not swear at all.” Do not even make vows. This is interesting because the Old Testament allowed vows but Jesus said not to make vows. We will come back to that. Honest, we will!
See how Jesus then picked up on this business of vowing by something other than God’s name. The Pharisees might have thought that this was a sophisticated way of avoiding using God’s name but Jesus pointed out the dishonesty in it. “You vow by heaven but God is still in that. It is His throne. You vow by earth thinking that you are not mentioning God but no, earth is His footstool. You vow by Jerusalem but God is still in that because it is the city of the Great King. You vow by your own head and, yes, your head is yours but you have no power to even turn one hair white or black (without using die, of course, which is a form of lying!). But God does have that power over your head. It is more His than it is yours. So all this cleverness is nonsense. You might think you are clever but in God’s eyes it is still dishonesty.
Then Jesus repeated that they shouldn’t even make vows. They should simply say “Yes” or “No”. Anything beyond that is from the evil one. Why did Jesus ban vows and say that they are evil?
Why do we make vows? Why do we make promises?
To add extra gravitas to our words. To stress that these words are a solemn pledge and can be trusted.
But why aren’t all of our words trustworthy? Why do we have a special category of words that we tell people they can trust? What does that say about our other words?
Sometimes we say, “To tell you the truth…” or “To be honest…”. Were we tempted to not be honest? Can our words, spoken outside this little honesty mode, be trusted or not?
That is why Jesus says not to make vows at all. All of our speech should be honest. Jesus says, “Just tell the truth – plainly and simply and without any trickery. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Nothing else is required.” Jesus calls for radical, plain, straight-forward honesty. My word is my bond. If I have said it, I will honour it.
I said before that some people say that society couldn’t function without lying. Nicky Gumbel says, “Behind the whole of God’s law is the desire of a loving God to create a society in which it would be a joy to live. If the three commands to which Jesus refers in these verses (vv.21-37) were kept, there would be no wars, no defence budget, no divorce, no adultery, no keys and no burglar alarms. Everyone could trust their husbands, wives, neighbours, business partners, employees, employers and all those around us. It would be a society in which politicians could be trusted and there would hardly be a need for lawyers.”
We can barely conceive of a society in which there is no murder, no hatred, no lust, no adultery, no divorce, no lying, but that is the Kingdom of God as Jesus described it here in the Sermon on the Mount. One day the Kingdom is going to come in its fullness. It is present even now. There are people – they are called “Christians” – who live in this new, radical, barely imaginable way.
We are called to a very high standard – a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees. You might remember that the umbrella title for this series of sermons is “Living Like Jesus”.
So, what about all of those little tricks we use so as not to tell the truth? Jesus calls for straight-forward, simple honesty and Jesus modelled that. Did Jesus ever lie? Did He ever use tricks to create a dishonest impression? There were times when He refused to answer people but that wasn’t to deceive. Even during His trial, there were times when He remained silent but, by the same token, He spoke honestly. Even at that time when He could have twisted things a little to protect Himself, He instead spoke the simple truth.
For example, when Jesus remained silent before the Sanhedrin, the high priest said, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
Very interesting. Here is an oath to be taken in the name of God – an oath that, because it is in the name of God, must be honoured. Would Jesus make such an oath when He has said not to make oaths?
Well He did! He replied, “You have said so but I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” At which the high priest tore his clothes saying, “He has spoken blasphemy! What do you think?” and the Sanhedrin replied, “He is worthy of death.” (Matt 26:63-66)
Why did Jesus reply under oath? Or, related question, should we take oaths in court; should we make marriage vows, when Jesus said not to make oaths? Jesus’ example shows that it is not wrong to take a vow when that is required of us by an authority. They have the right to know that we understand the solemnity of this statement and we agree to tell the truth. But, in the normal course of events, we should not do it simply because all of our words should be truthful. They shouldn’t need an oath.
God Himself made oaths but not to enhance His credibility. It is to assure us and to build our faith. God says, “I am trustworthy.”
So, recognising Jesus’ call to honesty, there are two ways we can put that into practice.
- Be the same in every situation.
The person who is one thing in one context but something different in another context is lying – lying about who he really is. Be true to yourself no matter who you are with or what the situation.
The word “integrity” comes from the word “integer” meaning oneness, integrated-ness, as opposed to being lots of different things. A person of integrity is not one thing in one situation and a different thing in another situation. He is not even different on the outside from what he is on the inside. He is not wearing a mask. Integrity means always being what you really are.
Nicky Gumbel tells this story: I once knew a godly man named ‘Gibbo’ who, when he was young, worked as a clerk at Selfridges, the London department store. One day, when the owner Gordon Selfridge was there, the telephone rang and Gibbo answered it. The caller asked to speak to Gordon Selfridge. Gibbo passed on the message and Selfridge replied, ‘Tell him I’m out’. Gibbo held the receiver to him and said, “You tell him you’re out.”
Gordon Selfridge took the call but was furious with him. Gibbo said afterwards, ‘If I can lie for you, I can lie to you.’ From that moment onwards Gordon Selfridge had the highest regard for, and trust in, Gibbo.
- Speak the truth without any deception
No tricky wording; no half-truths; no fingers crossed behind your back; no dishonest silence. Let your “yes” be yes and your “No” be no – simple and straight-forward.
Here’s a story from Corrie Ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place. It is a long time since I read it but this is how I remember it. The Ten Boom family rescued Jews in Holland during the Second World War and often had them hidden in their home. One time Nazi soldiers stormed the house and demanded to know where the Jews were. Corrie, or someone else in her family, answered, “They are under the table.” The group was in the kitchen; the table had a large cloth over it and there were Jews hiding under the table.
The Nazis though thought that they were being ridiculed and, though they searched, they never looked under the table. I guess they didn’t expect someone to tell the truth in a situation like that.
2 Samuel 2:30: “God honours those who honour Him.”
And if we have failed in the past – if we have been less than straight-forward with the truth – Jesus died for our sins. We can confess and be forgiven.
- Jesus taught more on this topic in Matthew 23:16-22. What does that passage add to your understanding?
- Watch the films “Liar Liar” and “The Invention of Lying” (although be aware, both have sexual content) and discuss what they say about lying as part of the way society functions.