Multiple levels of truth.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 September

Matthew 5.33-37, 23.16-22.

Thus far the Sermon on the Mount stuff has had parallels in the other gospels. This teaching doesn’t. It’s only found in Matthew.

Matthew 5.33-37 KWL
33 “Again, you heard this said to the ancients: You will not perjure. Lv 19.12
You’ll make restitution to the Lord for your oaths. Dt 23.23
34 And I tell you: Don’t swear at all.
Not ‘By heaven!’—it’s God’s throne. Ps 11.4
Not ‘By the land!’—it’s the footstool of his feet. Is 66.1
Not ‘By Jerusalem!’—it’s the city of the great King. Ps 48.2
36 Nor should you swear by your head; you aren’t able to make one hair white or black.
37 Make your word, ‘Yes yes; no no.’ Going beyond this is from evil motive.”

True, Jesus used to punctuate certain sayings with “Amen amen,” Jn 1.51, 3.3, 5.19, 6.26, 8.34, etc. (KJV “Verily verily”) and the LORD used to punctuate certain commands with, “I’m the LORD.” Ex 6.2, Lv 18.5, 19.3, 21.12, 22.2, etc. Arguably these too are oaths; stuff our Lord said in order to make it crystal clear he’s not kidding.

But there’s a huge difference between the Lord’s motives for swearing an oath, and ours. His is to underline. Ours is to say, “Okay, you know the rest of the time I’m a horrible liar. But now I mean it. Now I’m telling the truth. The rest of the time… well, I’m generally truthful. But now you can trust me. ’Cause I swore to God.” Or swore upon of the other things people swore by in Jesus’s day, like swearing by the land of Israel, swearing by Jerusalem, swearing by one’s head. Nowadays it’s swearing on your mother’s grave, swearing on the lives of your kids, swearing on a stack of bibles, swearing “by all that’s holy.” Whatever you consider holy.

But you see the inherent problem with this, which is what Jesus wanted to highlight: The fact we have to swear to tell the truth, or swear to do what we say we will, implies we’re unreliable liars the rest of the time. Which is not who he wants his people to be.

Jesus’s bible references.

First I gotta point out Jesus’s references aren’t necessarily direct quotes. There’s no “You will not perjure” command in the Law. There’s this though:

Leviticus 19.11-12 KWL
11 “Don’t steal. Don’t deceive. Men: Don’t lie to your neighbor.
12 Don’t swear by my name to lie, and pollute your God’s name. I’m the LORD.”

And this:

Numbers 30.2 KWL
“A man who vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind his life with a bond,
mustn’t pollute his word. Everything which came from his mouth, he should do.”

And this:

Deuteronomy 23.21-23 KWL
21 “When you vow a vow to your LORD God, don’t back away from completing it:
Your LORD God requires, requires it of you. It’s sin to you.
22 When you desist from vowing, it’s not sin to you.
23 Guard what comes forth from your lips.
Do what you freely vowed your LORD God, what you said with your mouth.”

Vows, when vowed to God, were a big deal. Are a big deal. Breaking those vows means we’ve taken the LORD’s name in vain, so that’s a sin. And like Moses said in Deuteronomy, anything we promised God becomes a sin if we don’t follow through.

People of Jesus’s day understood this. Same as now, they tried to use euphemisms instead of the LORD’s name. Just like someone who swears by all that’s holy, instead of swearing by the Holy Spirit. (Have you ever heard anyone swear by the Holy Spirit?) So technically they didn’t swear to God… which means God isn’t bound to hold ’em to their oaths if they commit perjury. “All that’s holy” means inanimate objects.

Swearing by the bible, fr’instance: It’s not a person. It’s a thing. One which too many people worship, but still: It’s a thing. Doesn’t matter how “living and active” we claim it might be; He 4.12 properly that verse refers to the word of God, meaning the person of Jesus, Jn 1.1 not the bible. He might hold us accountable… but an inanimate book won’t.

Well, Jesus closed those loopholes.

  • “By heaven” doesn’t fly with him. “Heaven” is most cultures’ euphemism for God. (China especially, ’cause they like to downplay how theist they actually are.) Matthew regularly refers to God’s kingdom as “the heavenly kingdom.” Mt 3.2, 4.17, 5.3, 7.21, 8.11, etc. Swear by heaven, and God knows exactly what you really mean.
  • “By the land (of Israel)”—KJV or “by the earth”—doesn’t work either. It’s God’s earth. You may imagine the devil took it over as much as you like; God called the earth his footstool, in Isaiah 66.1. (“Footstool for my feet” in the Septuagint, which is the translation Jesus used here.)
  • “By Jerusalem”—well, that’s God’s city. New Jerusalem especially.
  • “By my head”—well, that’s kinda stupid. How are our heads worth swearing by? Some of these heads are decidedly empty.

As for swearing by one’s head: Jesus pointed out, “You aren’t able to make one hair white or black.” Mt 5.36 I think I horrified my childhood Sunday school teacher by objecting, “Yes you can.” (Which is odd, ’cause she was living proof of it.) And lest you think hair coloration is a new thing, it’s really not. The ancient Egyptians were doing it in Abraham’s day. Wool is hair, and if we can dye wool, we can dye hair. So people did. Wasn’t safe, though. The Greeks and Romans blackened their hair with lead sulfide, and overuse tended to poison them. So Jesus’s statement is probably best understood, “You aren’t able to safely make one hair white or black.” Nor permanently: They grow out, y’know.

Jesus closed some more loopholes in Matthew 23:

Matthew 23.16-22 KWL
16 “How awful for you blind guides, who say,
‘Swearing by the temple is nothing. Swearing by the temple gold is binding.’
17 Stupid and blind. What’s greater, the gold? Or the temple sanctifying the gold?
18 And ‘Swearing by the altar is nothing. Swearing by the gift on it is binding.’
19 Blind. What’s greater, the gift? Or the altar sanctifying the gift?
20 Swearing by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it.
21 Swearing by the temple, swears by it and by the Spirit who dwells in it.
22 Swearing by heaven, swears by God’s throne and by the One sitting on it.”

I do like how Eugene Petersen swapped the ancient ideas for present-day behavior in The Message:

Matthew 23.16-22 The Message
16 “You’re hopeless! What arrogant stupidity! You say, ‘If someone makes a promise with his fingers crossed, that’s nothing; but if he swears with his hand on the Bible, that’s serious.’ 17 What ignorance! Does the leather on the Bible carry more weight than the skin on your hands? 18 And what about this piece of trivia: ‘If you shake hands on a promise, that’s nothing; but if you raise your hand that God is your witness, that’s serious’? 19 What ridiculous hairsplitting! What difference does it make whether you shake hands or raise hands? 20-22 A promise is a promise. What difference does it make if you make your promise inside or outside a house of worship? A promise is a promise. God is present, watching and holding you to account regardless.”

That’s Jesus’s general idea. A promise is a promise. When we promised God, carry it out. And when we promise others, carry that out too.

Shades of truth.

Contrast this with how our culture behaves. Even popular Christian culture. Both back then and today, people believe in multiple levels of truth. At least two. Sometimes more.

There’s how people usually talk. Which is usually honest. Generally we figure people are telling the truth. But there are certain socially acceptable lies, which we’ll grant without being too hurt.

  • “I’m doing fine” for how we’re doing. Even though we might not be fine at all. But people really don’t care how we’re doing. They just ask to be polite. Don’t tell ’em you’re doing terribly unless there’s some dire need. Like you’ve just been stabbed.
  • “I’m busy” to get out of social obligations. Though we’re not busy at all. But we’ll find something to do.
  • “It looks fine” when it doesn’t, and we don’t care to fix it, or don’t care to hurt someone’s feelings.
  • Same with “It tastes great,” or “It sounds good,” or “No your butt doesn’t look too big in that”: Trying to spare feelings.
  • “I just pulled out of the driveway” while we’re still putting our pants on. We don’t wanna hear any more criticism about how we can’t get anywhere on time.
  • “I don’t have any spare change” when we do, but frankly aren’t feeling all that charitable right about now.

These aren’t serious lies, we figure. These are white lies. Little bitty lies. We presume they’re so small they’re harmless; in fact they smooth things over, and keep people from having hurt feelings. They keep us out of trouble. They help us dodge responsibility without looking like selfish jerks.

We figure there aren’t serious consequences for telling these lies. Thing is, once the person we’ve lied to discovers we lied, there often are serious consequences. They’re seldom happy they’ve been lied to.

So because everybody tells so many white lies, whenever we’re in a situation where it’s really important we be believed, it’s time to bust out the next level of truth: “I swear to God I’m not lying.” Oaths get involved.

And some liars have levels of truth beyond these two. ’Cause they lie about everything. Their baseline isn’t where they tell the occasional white lies. Their baseline is an entirely fabricated life story where nothing is true. Like undercover police officers. Only they can’t justify their lies by pointing out they’re trying to catch criminals; sometimes they are criminals. But more often it’s because they enjoy lying. They find lies, and the practice of keeping their story straight, far more entertaining than real life.

Or they don’t—but they were raised by parents who taught ’em to fabricate everything, and now they honestly don’t know how to get out of a lying lifestyle. Either way, we can never be sure such people ever tell us the truth. Or the whole truth.

The very fact we’re obligated to swear to the truth, or swear we’ll do as we say we will, means we’re practicing multiple truth levels. We’re not always honest. We tell white lies. We break our word when convenient. Or we live a lifestyle of lies. Regardless, Jesus doesn’t want it. He only wants truth. The truth. The whole truth.

Christians shouldn’t need to swear.

Many bibles render Jesus’s words so they sound like he’s blaming the devil for the lies: “For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” Mt 5.37 NKJV After all, Satan’s the father of lies, Jn 8.44 and certainly it prefers to keep our culture a lying one, so it can accuse us with it at the End.

But Jesus only says it’s out of πονηροῦ/ponirú, “evil.” Not necessarily evil personified. Not necessarily devil-spawned evil. We humans can, when we choose, be plenty evil on our own. And we choose to live a lie. Or not.

Jesus’s solution is simple: Stick to the truth. We should never have to swear to anything when everyone knows we always tell the truth.

No, I’m not talking about “radical honesty,” where we state the truth, even if it’s insulting, hurtful, offensive—or when it’s unnecessary to say anything good or bad. Jesus didn’t practice that, as we know from the fact he kept it quiet he’s Messiah. He always told the truth, but he knew to do it tactfully and kindly. As should we.

Lots of people interpret Jesus’s ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ/ne ne, u u, as “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” That’s not quite what Jesus said. Nor what he himself practiced: Sometimes his “yes” was “So you say.” Mt 26.25, Mk 15.2, Lk 23.3

What Jesus was saying was that Hebrew practice of saying something twice to show you really mean it. (You know, like his “Amen amen.”) “Yes yes” means yes indeed. “No no” means no, really, I mean it, no. Any “yes” which really means no is evil. Same with a “no” which means yes.

I sometimes tell people, “And let your maybe be maybe.” People think I’m joking, but I’m quite serious: Lots of people say “maybe” instead of no. Which is just as much a lie as saying yes: It implies there’s a chance for yes—and sometimes that’s another white lie we tell to get people off our back. Kids have been burned so often by parents and teachers, this is what I run into:

ME. “Maybe.”
KID. [groaning] “You mean no.”
ME. “No, I mean maybe. If I meant no, I’d say no. I didn’t say no, ’cause maybe I can do ‘yes.’ Now let me think about it.”

If your “maybe” always turns into no, stop saying maybe. It’s just another white lie.

And ditch the white lies. We Christians never need to lie to smooth things over. There’s always an honest, less dissembling alternative. “I’d rather not say” is the simplest. “Don’t ask me” is another. No, these statements won’t keep people as blissfully unaware as a lie would. But since we’re the light of the world, what’re we doing keeping people in the dark? Tell ’em the truth. Be kind.

Say yes. Say no. Swear nothing. It’s not necessary when we’re always honest.