The 1990 Movie ‘Crazy People’ is billed as ‘a comedy about truth in advertising’ its premise is that you’ve got to be crazy to want to be honest in the advertising business. It tells the story an advertising executive burns out and checks into a mental hospital to recover and as he is under pressure to still work invites his fellow inmates to come up with ad’s for various consumer items. Unrestrained by slick thought processes they come up with ad’s based on truth.
The one that was most remembered from the film was for Volvo’s going against the trend of using sex to sell cars it simply says “Buy Volvo’s…they’re boxy… but they’re good.” Another one was for a cigarette brand and said “cancer probably, but taste definitely.” Despite initial resistance of course they take off and it becomes a phenomenon. Sadly of course that’s Hollywood right, we know that people will embellish things and stretch the truth… to sell us things. In fact we need to be protected against false advertising and there are very strict legal guidelines over what is and isn’t false advertising…. And in my humble opinion the boundaries are pushed all the time
We also live in a world at a personal level where people struggle with truth telling, being honest… and like in Jesus day they will resort to employing all sorts of oaths and flowery language and yes even religious language to sound like they can be trusted. In Jesus teaching on the Sermon on the Mount he says that people in the kingdom of God are to live a different way… They are to be honest and trustworthy… those of us who follow Jesus are to live with our ‘hearts in our mouth’ not because they are nervous but because we have a courageous integrity in a world of hype and insincerity. It's part of a series of case studies where Jesus explores how we are to live as Salt and Light. Showing how he has come to fulfill the law.
3 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’
Jesus isn’t referring to one statute in the Mosaic Law but is covering a series of sections in the law of Moses to do with making vows and swearing oaths. Honesty and integrity, constancy between our words and our actions, is at the heart of the Mosaic Law. Israel’s God is faithful and keeps his covenant and his word can be trusted, as God’s people they and we should reflect this. The fourth commandment is thou shall not bearing false witness against a neighbour. A community cannot live and function if it not based on honesty. There is no community without the ability to trust one another. The second commandment is also important here, ‘do not take the Lord’s name in vain’… I don’t know about you but I’ve always grown up with this being mainly about using God’s name as an expletive, and there is an element to this… but in Israel it was also very much that if you invoked the Lord’s name when making a vow and didn’t keep it that you were using the Lord’s name in vain.
The religious people of Jesus day in an attempt to make these commandments observable had changed the focus from personal integrity to focus on what is a binding formula and what isn’t. They were more interested in the fine print and loop holes than in fine intent. They focused on the structure of the words used not the state of the heart behind them. They were firm that if you made a false vow, in the Lord’s name that that was wrong. But if it didn’t relate to God’s name it wasn’t binding, this is where Jesus begins to challenge what they were doing.
Jesus shows that this splitting of hairs over what is and isn’t binding is futile. He says it’s not just God’s name that you need to worry about because whatever you swear by can be taken back to relate to God. In Isaiah 66V1 the prophet talks of heaven being God’s throne and the earth his foot stool. Jerusalem was the City that was set aside for the worship of God. In fact Jerusalem is a good example of how far the scribes and Pharisees had got in their discussion of what was binding, as some argued it was not binding if you swore by Jerusalem only if you turned to Jerusalem and swore towards it then it mattered. I don’t want to get down to the childish level of the old pinky swear and figures crossed behind your back, but it was getting that way.
And if it was even by your own head or your own life, what good is that says Jesus because let’s face it, we have no control over what colour our hair is, despite what the ad’s tell us even the best hair dyes grow out…right? Our lives and times are ultimately in God’s hands. It’s ridiculous says Jesus because when you think about it, it all relates back to God. In the list of woes against the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 23 Jesus picks up this theme again and looks at some of the other knit picking over what was and wasn’t a binding oath and says Guy’s you’ve missed the point its about a heart attitude.
37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Like with the other case studies we’ve been looking at in Matthew 5 Jesus now turns to look at what is at the heart of the matter. Just like anger was the problem behind murder and we needed to be bridge builders rather thangrave diggers, and lust was the problem behind adultery and Jesus followers were to have an adulterated passion in a sex saturated society, treating each other primarily as objects of God’s love and subjects of God’s Kingdom rather as mere objects subjected to sexual desire. Now Jesus says it’s not about the words you say but the heart attitude behind it. It’s about having an honesty and integrity that comes from the heart. That comes from a transformed life.
Be the kind of people says Jesus who when you say yes people know you mean yes and when you say no they know you mean no. We might be more used to the saying ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say’… You can have all sorts of language to try and make you sound honest and trustworthy, but unless you are its window dressing. It’s like a flash exterior over a rotting framework… And says Jesus lies come from the evil one.
Historically one of the outworking’s of this passage has been that various Christian groups mainly Anabaptist and Quakers have seen it as a prohibition against swearing any kind of public oath. So they have refused public office and refused to swear in in court cases or make affidavits. While you can admire their desire to be obedient to Jesus teaching, it’s not the thrust of the passage. In Genesis 9 we find God actually makes a vow, not to flood the world again and he makes that vow on his own name. Not to show us he is trustworthy but to help our own unbelief. At Jesus trial before the Sanhedrin Jesus is put on oath to say whether or not he is the messiah, Jesus answers truthfully. Again the passage points to the underlying attitude we should have that we should be peoples who word can be trusted.
The other area it has historically had an impact is in Christian liturgy. It is why churches do not have oaths as part of their services. At Baptisms and weddings people are simply invited to respond ‘I do’ to the vows they are being asked to make. As N T Wright points out Jesus teaching on qoaths here is significant as follows on from his teaching on divorce, where Jesus says we need to value marraige in a throw away society. In one place in the baptismal liturgy when Parents are asked if they will bring up their children with all the benefits of a Christian house or home the response is we will with God as our helper’, not because it is an oath but rather with the acknowledgement that we need God’s help in bringing up a child and only God has our future in his hands.
At work there is the challenge of being people whose word can be trusted. A friend of mine tells the story of the impact he was able to have at work simply by keeping confidences, and not participating in the office gossip that was riff in his work place. He said that people would come to him when they needed help because they knew he could be trusted. Another friend talked to me of always checking his bosses billing so that people were not over charged when he worked on their cars. I guess there are real challenges for people in sales to be both loyal to their products but also truthful about their capabilities as well. For Students there is the challenge of honesty as well particularly with the pressure to do well. At University a couple of years ago to have to hand in my assignments electronically through a program called ‘turnitin’ that searches the script of what is written to check for plagiarism. I was also relieved when the programme didn’t pick up anything in my assignments, all the hours of scrupulously attributing ideas and quotes paid off.
I think it’s important to note that in Jesus Sermon here we can say ‘No’. Can I say that that is quite liberating. In Christian circles there are people who feel they always have to say yes to requests for help and doing things.
The reality is we don’t if we are asked to do something in the church it is a welcome mat to ministry not a invitation to simply be a door mat. In the Kingdom of God we are about servanthood, we value service, it’s not about servitude that devalues people’s ministry and gifts of time and work and turns them into duty and drudgery. In keeping with Jesus teaching of over spiritualising our language, we can do that with our ‘no’s as well. Someone from another church came to see how we ran a Community Christmas dinner at St John’s in Rotorua. She spent the time checking out what was going on and when she asked if there was anything she could do to help, was invited to help do the dishes, to which she replied… no thanks, that’s not my gifting.