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.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
— Matthew 5: 33-37
One of the sad realities in the world today, exposed even more so in our current dilemma, is honesty, speaking the truth. One of the catch-phrases with politicians is “fake news,” the criticism of improper reporting in the media. And from the media we now see the employment of fact-checkers who listen to politicians these days, not simply to see if they can find an untruth, but to record the number of untruths. We have reached the point in our society that playwright Noel Coward once described: “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
Jesus’ words today speak to this. But it is interesting how easy it is to read over this passage. At first glance it seems to be the least weighty and the least relevant of all these ethical statements. It is not. Jesus is talking about the need for integrity in the Christian community, the need for integrity in our personal lives.
In Jesus’ day it was not unusual when making a vow or a promise to invoke the name of God – “In the name of God I swear . . .” Of course, we still do that in courts of law, don’t we? A person takes the stand and is asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Jesus wasn’t actually referring to what we today call swearing or profanity; he was talking about the need for honesty in what we say. In addition, he was addressing the use of God’s name in a flippant way.
There are those who take this rather seriously. This week Vickie Contreras asked about my reference to a quote by Amy-Jill Levine in which she used the written term, “G-d.” I responded that Dr. Levine is an Orthodox Jew, and most in that sect of Judaism believe that the name of God should have a reverence about it, and that specifically it should never be written where it might be erased. Thus, instead of writing “God,” they write “G-d.” In some ways it seems farcical to do this, but in others it bespeaks the seriousness with which they treat God’s name.
Jesus isn’t talking about grammatical ploys to be used here. Nor is he talking simply about profanity. He is talking about being a person and a people of integrity.
Lonesome Dove is one of, if not the best western stories of all time. It’s the story of two old Texas Rangers by the names of Gus McRae and Woodrow Call. The novel is written by Larry McMurtry; and McMurtry, being the Texas history buff that he is, based the idea for the story on two real-life characters, Charlie Goodnight and Oliver Loving. These men lived up in the Panhandle of Texas. At any rate, the story goes that Gus McRae dies in Montana at the end of a cattle drive; but before he passes on, he gets Call to promise to take his body back to Texas and bury him at Lonesome Dove. Call promises to do that, but the journey back to Texas with McRae’s body is an arduous one, to say the least. (Just think about hauling a corpse without any embalming assistance all that way!) Along the way, when people allude to the lunacy of such a trip, Call has a refrain that he uses, ‘I know it sounds foolish. I even told him so myself. But I don’t forget no promise I made to a friend.’” And when he finally gets McRae back to his final resting place, he says over the grave: “Well, Gus; there you go. I guess this will teach me to be more careful about what I promise people in the future.”
Jesus wants us to be careful about the words we say and the promises we make. He wants us to make good on our word, in order to honor God.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Take some time to allow yourself to contemplate the mystery of God. In this time consider God as “Master of the Universe,” Creator of all that is. Focus on the wonder of your own existence and the part it plays in God’s continuing creation.
- In your prayer time, think about a person who speaks the truth to you, for you and with you. Thank God for that person and her/his integrity.
- Ephesians 4:15 offers an additional perspective from Paul that relates to Jesus’ words, the familiar phrase, “speaking the truth in love.” We have all seen times when honesty was used as a weapon to wound rather than heal.Think about how your life might be edited to exercise honesty with compassion.
- The poet Stéphane Mallarmé wrote “the job of the poet is to give a purer sense to the words of the tribe.” How might you become poetic in your own life?
A Guide for Prayer: A Prayer by Al Staggs
of limited vision, limited faith.
Open the doors of our tiny, damp cells
and flood our lives with your light and warmth.
Free us from the need to remain
in the narrow confines of our small
physical, emotional and spiritual spaces.
Give us the courage to leave the security of
our familiar habits, our petty concerns and anxieties
and to walk boldly into the frightening
and challenging corridors of the future.
Lord, we are so afraid of today and tomorrow.
It is much easier for us to rehearse the past
and thus repeat it in all its familiarity.
Unlock the shackles of our minds and hearts
and help us see the possibility of a life of challenge,
service, compassion, love and self-sacrifice.
Help us, Lord, to not hold back because of uncertainty.
Liberate us, O God, to daily fight the urge to accept
the self-imposed sentence as life’s victims.
Deliver us, O God from the urge to create an image
of you and your will from the false, misguided views
that we harbor in our imperfect knowledge of you.
Speak to us, trouble us, save us from the slavish tendency
to remain in bondage to those fears that keep us from trusting you
and the purpose you have for all your daughters and sons.
Our prayer and our desire are to experience your life,
love and joy this day and every day of our lives.