Introduction How often have you overheard or perhaps participated in a playground conversation which has gone something like this; “You said you would bring the ball I lent you back to school today.” “That’s right but I didn’t say ‘honest’, I didn’t say, ‘cross my heart and hope to die’ and besides did you know, that when I spoke, I had my fingers crossed behind my back” From an early age, children find an amazing number of ways to disguise the real meaning of their intentions and of using words which carry little weight.
Presentation 21 Introduction This approach to truthfulness is not discarded with advancing years. UK. parliamentarians have justified deceit, calling it ‘being economic with the truth’. This indicates just how unimportant truth has become to some. Richard Nixon a former American president was obliged to step down from office because of his untruthfulness. Daniel Webster writes: “There is nothing so powerful as truth - and often nothing so strange.” In the Christian manifesto published by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, we find that the distinctive of truthfulness should mark the lives of God’s people.
Presentation 21 The Background To Oath Taking Today, we are familiar with the idea of a person taking an oath in order to demonstrate that they recognise the seriousness of telling the truth. When they do so in a court of law they are indicating that the responsibility is theirs for any perjury they might be guilty of. In order to understand these verses it is important to recognise that Jesus is not primarily speaking against oaths but against the abuse of oaths and the corresponding abuse of truth that goes along with them.
Presentation 21 The Background To Oath Taking God is not opposed to oaths as such, see the place given to oath taking in scripture. In Lev.19v12 God says to Israel, ‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God.’ And again, ‘you shall fear the Lord... and swear by his name’ Deut. 10v20. In addition, Jesus was prepared to speak under oath at his trial. The High Priest said, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Yes, it is as you say’ Matt 26v63. Jesus had maintained complete silence up until this point but when he was put under oath he recognised its binding nature and answered the High Priest’s question.
Presentation 21 The Background To Oath Taking In the light of the provision the O.T. made for oath taking and in some cases its encouragement to do so and given Jesus own involvement with it in his trial, why does Jesus say, ‘swear not at all’ v34? The first thing to understand is that oath taking was greatly abused in Jesus’ day. So much so, that the practice actually weakened the cause of truth rather than contributing towards it. The focus had shifted away from the vow and the need to keep it to the particular formula which a man employed when making it.
Presentation 21 The Background To Oath Taking Some of the scribes taught that false swearing took place when God’s name was included in an oath which was subsequently not kept. But it was permissible to swear by something other than God, e.g. heaven, earth, Jerusalem, one’s head and then not keep one’s word. And so they made ‘evasive swearing’ possible. People used this method and then released themselves from their oath by saying; ‘Of course, if I had sworn by God’s name, I would have kept my oath. But the fact that I swore by the earth should have given you some idea that my commitment to keep my word was not an absolute one’.
Presentation 21 The Background To Oath Taking The logical conclusion of their teaching was that God was only interested in truth, when his name was invoked but, in other circumstances, deception was permissible. As if God could be eliminated from any part of his world. Life cannot be divided into little compartments, some of which God is interested in and others he is not. Heaven is God’s throne and the earth is his footstool, Jerusalem is his city, he numbers the hairs on our heads. And so, no promise can ever be made without it being done in this presence.
Presentation 21 The Background To Oath Taking This abuse of oath taking give the appearance of serious commitment, while all the time secretly intending to do the exact opposite. It had the effect of devaluing something that was sacred. It produced a cynicism towards oaths which had taken on a frivolous identity. There was no longer any difference between the trite and the solemn. Imagine the janitor of a courthouse who habitually spoke of his ‘honourable floor, honourable benches, honourable mop, honourable pail’. His speech would have lost much of its meaning when he addressed the judge as ‘your honour’.
Presentation 21 How Are Christians To Live? Jesus’ response to this abuse of truthfulness and oath taking was to say quite simply that the lives of his followers should be marked by a commitment to truthfulness. ‘Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no’.’ You do not need to call upon God to witness that what you say is true, for you live your life in his presence. He knows your thoughts. He reads your hearts. Constant oath taking is often no more than a pathetic confession of dishonesty.
Presentation 21 How Are Christians To Live? A visitor to a bazaar in Morocco heard a salesman swear on his grandfather’s grave and by the beard of the prophet that his was the cheapest price. It all seemed very convincing till a different trader sold a similar article for half the price. Why do some people feel obliged to swear upon a stack of Bibles, or to assure you that they are telling you the ‘gospel truth’, or want to cross their heart and hope to die? Do they think that their simple word is unlikely to be trusted? Their eagerness to take an oath is counter productive as it places a question mark over their trustworthiness. Anything beyond simple honesty in speech comes from the evil one.
Presentation 21 How Are Christians To Live? Some people are eager to evade the truth. You may have overheard one of the amusing conversations children have when one asks a question the other really does not want to answer it. It might go something like this; ‘Did you take my biscuit?’ ‘I was watching television’. ‘I didn’t ask if you were watching television, I asked if you took my biscuit?’ ‘There’s another one in the box.’ ‘Did you take my biscuit answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.’ Jesus expects his followers to tell the truth not to evade it.
Presentation 21 How Are Christians To Live? Man does not naturally tell the truth when a lie will protect him from harm. Telling the truth can be costly. Charles Colson was one of Nixon’s close aids. During the Watergate investigation Colson came to faith. And although not directly implicated in the Watergate cover-up he was called to give evidence. He could not plead guilty to the Watergate crimes but to the amazement of the court he volunteered his past involvement in other political dirty tricks. As a Christian he felt obliged to tell the truth, even if it cost him dearly and it did. He was imprisoned and debarred from the legal profession of which he was a prominent member.
Presentation 21 How Are Christians To Live? Jesus taught that the Christian is to be a man of his word, a person who keeps his promise and so reflect the family image for God is a God of truth. The Psalmist reminds us that God, ‘desires truth in the inward parts’ Ps.51v6. There is no place for double standards. A half-truth is a dangerous thing, especially if you have got hold of the wrong half. Truth is not governed by the formula we use. Some ask, “Is it not permissible to shade the truth a bit, to tell a white lie or to stay silent even if that means the truth is misunderstood”? God makes no provision for such things.
Presentation 21 How Are Christians To Live? One practical matter that has troubled some Christians is whether or not it is permissible to take an oath in a court of law. In the C16 th Reformation Europe, many Baptists taught that it was wrong to do so. Today many Quakers continue to hold this view. While one can admire a desire not to compromise the teaching of Jesus, based on what has already been said, their interpretation claim more than Jesus intended. He himself did not refuse to respond to the High Priest when he was put on oath.
Presentation 21 How Are Christians To Live? The Christian who takes an oath in a court of law does so, not primarily because he might otherwise perjure himself, but because so many others do. We find that God bound himself by oaths in the scriptures e.g. Gen. 22v16 not because he was untrustworthy, not to increase his credibility but in order to accommodate himself both to man’s unbelief and by way of condescension to man’s daily experience of untruthfulness in others.
Presentation 21 Conclusion If truth has been devalued in society and in public life, we need to ask if truth has been devalued in our Christian lives? Does our ‘yes’ really men yes? Does it carry a definite commitment? Do we modify or disguise the truth? Do we do what we say we will do? Are we seen as men and women of integrity? Jesus shows us what will introduce and maintain such integrity of speech. We are to recognise that we live our lives in God’s presence. He hears our every conversation and monitors every promise which we make. God can help us be champions of the truth and by so doing reflect that which is of great importance to him.