Matthew 5:33-37

He was America’s most adorable liar and cult hero. At the time, Newsweek called his lies “lavish” and “lovable.” The New York Times said that the ads were the “funniest being aired on television today.” Time suggested that his lies were responsible for turning bull into bucks.

He was “Joe Isuzu” and he was pulling — or bulling — Americans by the thousands into the showrooms of an import auto manufacturer that few of us had heard of thirty-six months prior to when the ads began airing.
Here was his pitch:
During Isuzu’s Truly Incredible Sale, thanks to factory incentives, you’ll be able to take advantage of some truly remarkable deals. PUP, America’s lowest priced import truck, now only $3. (The disclaimer reads, “Give or take $6,296.”
Our amazing Impulse and Trooper II also come with factory incentives, like wall-to-wall chinchilla. (The disclaimer reads, “Great deals, but no chinchilla.”)
And for the first 10,000 customers, we’ll throw in a free chauffeur. (The disclaimer reads, “Providing you pay for him.”
You have my word on it.
What made this ad campaign so successful was that everyone knew the announcer was not telling the truth. Someone has called ours a “huckstering, show-bizzy world, jangling with hype, hullabaloo, and hooey, bull, baloney, and bamboozlement.” Indeed, people have come to expect not to hear the truth anymore.
The lie is not an unusual element in the American way of life. Most errors on tax returns are in favor of the taxpayer. In fact, Americans lie on their income tax returns to the tune of millions of dollars every year. Doctors falsify reports in order to profit from Medicare patients. Prize athletes at state universities are kept eligible for competition through bogus credits and forged transcripts of academic records.
Employees call in “sick” when relatives are visiting. Few of us think twice before arguing that we were not driving as fast as the arresting officer claims. Almost any marriage counselor who interviews each spouse separate from the other can hardly believe that he is hearing a description of the same relationship, the accounts vary so radically.
Every teacher can recite a catalogue of each year’s most unbelievable lies contrived by students who missed a test or a deadline. Frequently, parents even get in the act through pleading the case of and making elaborate excuses for lazy or rebellious children. Customers or clients frequently hear feeble excuses for late deliveries, extended repair periods, or inferior workmanship.
In the military and in politics, in public service and private, there is a well-developed technique for not telling the truth about certain things. An entire vocabulary has been tested and developed by centuries of usage that indicates what to say in this and that situation and what to conceal all the while you are saying it. Occasionally, we refer to it as being “diplomatic” or “tactful.” Historically speaking, the plea has been registered with the American public: “My deceit was in the best interest of our national security.”
So universal is the acceptance of deceit that we feel to call persons “liars” who have only said they were not at home when we called them would be unjustly severe. Each of us has to do that at one time or another for the sake of mere rest and relaxation. Furthermore, to indict government officials whose patriotic zeal led them to break the laws of the land and then to cover up their illegalities is, for many Americans, outrageous and unthinkable. So, we sanction their immunity and urge a presidential pardon.
As far as most of us are concerned, “the white lie” is beyond good or evil. It has been sanctified by society. It’s hard to be continually honest, not because we have cheating hearts, but because society offers so many incentives for lying. It’s not really expected that we will weigh every word so scrupulously.
But into the midst of all this comes a word from God: “don’t lie at all!” That really is the meaning of this teaching in the text.
Through the centuries the Christian church has been strangely uncertain about the interpretation of this passage. Some Christians, like the Quakers, have understood this to be a prohibition against any oath. So even in a court of law they refuse to “swear” to tell the truth. This teaching has nothing to do with judicial oaths or any serious pledging of our word of honor.
Others have seen in this teaching a concentration on profanity. Certainly, the essence of the teaching is to forbid taking God’s name in vain, as we shall see. But the primary thrust of the teaching is not with profanity, but with perjury. Its primary concern is with truthfulness.
The Jews were accustomed to a gradation of oaths. It was their practice to require a man to take an oath to bolster his credibility. It was only because they were such religious people that this custom was so effective in getting to the truth.
They believed intensely in God. They had a deep reverence for His name. So, they never told a lie when they swore by the name of God. For instance, if a Jew said, “As God is my witness, thus and so is the truth,” you could count on his word being true. If God’s name was used, then God was his partner in the transaction.
However, if that same Jew swore by heaven that he was telling you the truth, he might be telling the truth, but you could not hold him to it absolutely. If God’s name was not used, then God likely had nothing to do with the promise or its fulfillment.
Swearing by heaven was a little less dangerous since it was not God Himself. As one progressed farther away from God in his swearing, lies became more and more permissable. Clearly, the Pharisees did not so much think that telling a lie under any condition was wrong. Rather, the more sacred the thing sworn by, the more likely you were to receive divine punishment for lying, or so they thought.
One rabbi wrote: “If you swear by Jerusalem, you are not bound by your vow. However, if you swear toward Jerusalem, you are bound by what you have sworn.” While the distinction between swearing by Jerusalem or toward Jerusalem is not clear, it is apparent that hedging the truth was permissable even among the most devoutly religious. If you were clever enough to imply the name of God in your promise without ever really using His name, you were not bound by your oath.
The Old Testament itself provided the basis of this understanding. The Law read: “And you shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:12). The strict interpretation of that passage clearly left a loophole for the one looking for a way to pledge an unbinding oath.
All of this brings up an interesting twist on deceitfulness. Experience has proven that men can sometimes lie even when their words are true.
Deception is the heart of all lies. I lie when I purposely corrupt the message I am sending to another person. My message involves not only my words, but my gestures, my facial movements, my pauses, my symbols. The key to deceitfulness is an intention to deceive another person with our message.
Penny Baxter, a character in The Yearling, showed us how this was done. He wanted to get rid of a worthless dog he had. So he set out to trade the dog to Lenn Forrester. A man was expected to brag about his hunting dog, stringing out his abilities on a line of exaggerations and lies. In fact, the more you bragged, the more everybody knew you were lying.
Penny brought his dog to Lenn’s place and said: “He ain’t wuth a good twist of t’bacey…. Sorriest bear dog I ever … followered.”
Lenn perked up: “I never heerd a man run down his own dog that-away.” Next day, Lenn carried his best shotgun over to Penny Baxter’s house. “Don’t argue with me. When I want a dog, I want a dog. Take the gun for him or … I’ll come and steal him.” So the trade was made. Penny got rid of his dog and made a good deal. But his conscience began to flutter.
His own son reassured him: “You told the truth, Pa.” “Yes,” said Penny, “my words was straight, but my intentions was as crooked as the Ocklawaha River.”1
We can deceive without lying words. The crux is the intent. Messages we aim at another with the intent to deceive them are lying words. That is what is prohibited by Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus countered the Old Testament prohibition against swearing a false oath by forbidding swearing at all. Instead, the Christian disciple should concentrate on giving a straightforward “yes” or “no.”
Clearly, His intention was much more radical than merely dispensing with the use of oaths. In a society like His, built around the use of oaths as a way of guaranteeing one’s honesty, setting them aside would be as impossible as prosecuting anger or lust. But, consistent with His previous teachings, the text uses an everyday legal concern to express Jesus’ demand for conduct consistent with discipleship: the demand for total honesty.
The whole concept of oath-taking has about it the character of the exceptional. I do not always take an oath, swear, or give a pledge; thus, what I say under oath, or by means of an oath, is by its very nature different from my ordinary, everyday speech.
In other words, by the very exceptional way in which I am saying this, I am saying that God is not ordinarily present in what I say. Therefore, my ordinary speech does not necessarily possess this specific gravity and seriousness. As a rule, I normally float along on a stream of ordinary character.
There are many ways in which we do this. Our speech is full of a variety of oaths. For instance, “I give you my word of honor.” Or “I promise that I will do this or that.”
We are to avoid the words which fly from mouth to mouth on the wings of rumor — all anonymous — accountable only to the unidentified crowd we refer to as “they” — yet, nobody is really ever responsible for having passed the word along.
We must not exaggerate, a habit we all have formed. Have you not recently only had a “moderately good” time at a party or social gathering, but then told your hostess that you had a “fabulous” or “absolutely fantastic” evening. The more we practice that kind of deceitfulness, the more we depreciate the human word and the less the sound of truthfulness about anything we say. A Christian ought to refuse to tell anything so fantastic that it requires a warranty with the words, “I swear,” or “You have my word on it.”
We should not even allow others to exaggerate for us. Exaggeration is a lie because it gives a false impression to those who hear.
Everything about the speech of the Christian ought to be transparently honest. When a Christian says, “I will be there,” that Christian will be there. When a Christian says, “no,” he means no. When a Christian joins a group — even a civic or community club — enrolls in a course, accepts an invitation, or otherwise pledges himself or herself, it is no small and innocuous thing. He fully means to honor all that his promise implies. A Christian’s “yes” always means “yes.”
We are always in the presence of God and we must not lie! It is clear that by prohibiting oaths, Jesus was concerned only for truthfulness. Jesus allows no exceptions for the lie: none are excusable, helpful, good, or justifiable, no matter how well meaning.
When the heat is on and the days are difficult, even then the Christian is expected to use simple, true, transparent speech. Among the ranks of Christ’s followers, there is no hedging the truth.
In marriage and business, politics and law, even in religion and the church, people must trust each other. Our society, our government, our church, our families are not stable when the words we speak to each other cannot be trusted.
Lying diminishes everyone we deceive. For by lying we treat people as if they have no right to share in mutual trust without which we cannot be human and we certainly cannot be the people of God!
The Christian claims to have the truth and to follow Him who is the Truth (John 14:6). Therefore, the truth and nothing but the truth should be reflected in the Christian’s life.
Once Jesus said to His disciples: “If it were not so, would I not have told you? (John 14:2). That is to be the standard by which every Christian is to measure his words.
For a Christian disciple, “yes” or “no” should be sufficient. A Christian’s statements should carry with them the authority of truthfulness.
The foundational principle of Jesus’ teaching is His conviction that no matter what you say, you cannot avoid some reference to God. The whole world is God’s world and you cannot eliminate Him from any of it. If you should swear by heaven, it is God’s throne. If you should swear by earth, it is God’s footstool. Should you attempt to swear by Jerusalem, you would be swearing by God’s city. Even your own head is not yours. It is under God’s control (Matthew 5:34-36).
In other words, we are always in God’s presence. And according to a later teaching, Jesus understood that we are accountable for every word we utter. He said:
I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:36-37).
That is how seriously God takes what we say! Life cannot be divided into neat little compartments, some of which are immune from God’s presence and some of which are not. God is everywhere, in every compartment of life. We must be completely honest.

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