When you buy medicine, do you buy brand name, or generic? Do you buy Tylenol, or the cheapest box of generic acetaminophen that you can find?
Generic products sometimes carry the stigma of being cheap. But, when it comes to drugs, it makes sense to buy generic. When what’s in the box is the same substance, who really cares if it’s got a pretty label, or a catchy slogan.
What matters isn’t the packaging, but what the product actually does.
The same thing is true of promises. What matters isn’t the outward packaging, but what the person actually does.
That’s what Jesus says in the part of the Sermon on the Mount that we’re taking a look at today. For a number of weeks now we’ve been listening to Jesus correct the Pharisees’ shallow understanding of God’s Law. Today we’ll hear Jesus speak about telling the simple truth.
If you’d like to follow along in your own Bible, turn to Matthew 5, verse 33. There Jesus says,
“33“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37 NIV).
Did you ever do the cross your fingers thing? You know, if you’re crossing your fingers you can lie and it’s okay? Did you ever do that when you were a kid? The Pharisees did.
Well, okay, they didn’t actually cross their fingers and hold them behind their back. What they did was they rated different oaths. Some oaths had to be kept, others didn’t matter.
If a Pharisee swore “by the altar” that he’d do something, he didn’t have to keep that promise. But, if a Pharisee swore “by THE SACRIFICE that was on the altar”, THEN he had to keep his promise.
Sound stupid? Jesus thought so too. Turn to Mathew 23, verse 16. Here Jesus is denouncing the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. Jesus says…
“16“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it” (Matthew 23:16-22 NIV).
It’s easy for us to condemn the Pharisees. How stupid could they be? Only some of your promises matter to God? Only certain ones really need to be kept?
But don’t WE do the same thing? I think we might. Are there circumstances that we believe excuse us from being truthful? Are there circumstances that excuse us from keeping promises that we’ve made?
Maybe when someone is unkind to us, we feel that we no longer have to keep a promise we’ve made to them. If they’ve broken a promise to us, we might think we’re no longer obligated keep promises we’ve made to them. The Pharisees weren’t the only ones who found ways to avoid keeping their promises. We do it also.
But Jesus’ teaching is uncomplicated. He says, “Don’t swear that you’re going to do something, and then fail to do it. Don’t swear at all, just DO what you say you’re going to do.”
What would it say about us if we had to make all sorts of oaths so that people will believe what we say? It would say that most of the time we’re lying.
You know people who can’t be trusted. People who speak the language of lies more than the language of truth. People who regularly sprinkle little oaths into their conversation. Oaths like, “I swear to God” Or maybe, “no really, I’m serious, I’m not even making this up”.
As followers of the God of truth, we should not have to sprinkle our conversation with such promises in order for people to believe us. We aught to speak the truth with such consistency that we are know for it. We should consistently DO what we SAY we’re going to do so that that nobody ever doubts that we’ll follow through.
But we fail.
We get put on the spot in a social setting, and instead of telling the truth, we say what we think people want to hear. We tell a little pressure lie.
We find ourselves in a situation where telling the truth probably won’t get us what we want, so we tell a little lie of manipulation.
We don’t want disappoint someone who needs something, so we say we’ll help, and we never get around to doing it. We over commit ourselves and our promises are slowly broken as we drag our feet and never get around to doing what we said we’d do.
We might not make oaths in the same way that the Pharisees did, but we break promises just the same. When pressure, anger, greed or temptation comes our way, promises get broken.
Jesus had to deal with all the pressures of life too, but He never lied in the face of those pressures. Even then His words could have saved Him from certain death, Jesus wouldn’t lie.
What I’m talking about is that time in Jesus’ trial before the Jewish Sanhedrim where He was called on to speak. You can turn to Mark 14, verse 62 if you’d like. I’m going to read from there in a second.
There Jesus is standing before the Jewish supreme court. He’s been arrested and many false witnesses have come forward to try and make something stick to Jesus so the they can have Him executed. But nothing has been working. It almost seems like the Sanhedrim will fail to get Jesus killed. But then the High Priest asks Jesus if he is the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One. Without hesitation Jesus says,
“I am, …And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62).
And with those words Jesus sealed His ticket to the cross as far as the Jews were concerned. Jesus signed His own death sentence by refusing to lie and by telling the truth. And because He never told a lie, and suffered for our every lie, our lies have all been forgiven, erased, washed away and forgotten by God the Father.
And also, because Jesus never lied, never broke an oath, God the Father has restored His Son to glory. Now He lives our Risen Savior forever.
So why should we do anything but tell the truth with love and gentle humility? Jesus will bless us as we follow His example. He has already made us His own forgiven children. Let us now truly learn to live lives that are free from lies and true to God.
What we need to be is more generic in what we say. Not cheap and flimsy, but simple and without manipulative decoration and exaggeration.
To do what we say we’ll do. And to not over commit ourselves to so many things that we can’t help but break our word.
Prayer: Father in heaven, thank you for taking away all our lies. Thank you for forgiving us because of Christ’s complete truthfulness and His cross. Send your Holy Spirit into our hearts by your Word, so that we always speak the truth, and not lies which are the language of the devil. Give us strength and endurance to actually do what we say we’ll do. Help us also to not over commit ourselves to so many things that we can’t help but break our promises. We pray these things through Jesus, Your Son, our Savior. Amen.
The Peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.