Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Telling the Truth

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July 12, 2012 by jmar198013

[Matt. 5.33-37: On truth-telling] “Again, you’ve heard the command passed down from previous generations not to break your oath, but to carry out the vows you’ve made to the Lord. Well, I advise you not to swear by anything at all. Not by heaven, because it is God’s throne, and not by earth, because it is God’s footstool. Not by Jerusalem, because it is God’s city. Not even by your own head, because you can’t make one hair on it return to its youthful color once it’s turned gray. Word is bond—anything more than that is from the devil.”

At the outset of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus began to speak the church into existence by describing its people (Matt. 5.3-12) and provided them with a vocation and a task (5.13-16), he also made it clear that this new people exists in continuity with the traditions and communities of Moses and the Prophets (5.17-20). Matthew 5.21-48, often erroneously labeled the “antitheses,” are not antithetical to Torah. Rather, they are re-appropriations of Torah and the Prophets for the communities Jesus is creating.

Matt. 5.33-37 is a commentary on Moses’ teachings about oaths and vows. And of course, what Moses taught about oaths and vows was that one ought to be faithful to them. That falls under the rubric of his word, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” It also falls under the category of not bearing the LORD’s name in vain, since oaths and vows typically invoked the deity. Moses was concerned that Israel be a people of truthfulness, of fidelity, and trustworthiness. Jesus’ teachings on oaths here are not, therefore, antithetical to those of Moses.

The purpose of an oath is to vouchsafe the truthfulness of the one making the oath. The fact that the deity was invoked made the deity a witness to the oath. This also implied that, were the oath to be broken, God would have recourse to punish the oath-breaker. The popular wisdom of Jesus’ day was, therefore, to make an oath without specifically inviting God to witness it. Thus, they would use surrogates in place of God: heaven, earth, Jerusalem, their own heads. The idea was that bypassing direct reference to God in the phrasing of the oath gave them permission to break it. This is a situation not unlike the one I described when I talked about Matt. 5.31-32. In that instance, the divorce certificate, meant by Moses to protect women from exploitation, was being used to exploit them. In this instance, the oath, meant to safeguard the truthfulness of a statement or agreement being made, was in fact a tool of deception. Jesus’ response to the situation he encountered was to remind people that since everything ultimately issues from God, there is nothing you can swear by that doesn’t implicate God. His word to his people is to be such a plain-spoken people that oaths are not necessary.

Just as I pointed out when discussing Matt. 5.27-32, the deeper issue underlying Jesus’ words on lust, adultery, and divorce is the exploitation of women; in Matt. 5.33-37, the deeper issue back of Jesus’ words is the human tendency to manipulate words to gain power over others. This is seen in the world of finance, in mortgages and other forms of credit, where agreements are one-sided–or at least lopsided–and this fact is typically hidden in language so arcane (and font so tiny) that there is no way the disadvantaged party can ever know just what a disadvantage they are at. Again, in the world of politics, our corporate economy, and our neutered media, a phenomenon called doublespeak exists. Media analyst Edward Herman describes doublespeak as “the ability to lie, whether knowingly or unconsciously, and to get away with it; and the ability to use lies and choose and shape facts selectively, blocking out those that don’t fit an agenda or program.” So corporations can call pitting one labor pool against another “outsourcing.” They can also call giving working people the shaft as their own coffers grow fat “downsizing.” And again there is the matter of our own government’s 2005 “Consumer Protection Act,” which was the most one-sided piece of legislation against consumers that has ever been passed. We expect this from the world; that the church also often finds itself implicated by supporting and sanctioning those voices who use language to exploit others is troubling. Jesus’ words in Matt. 5.33-37 remind the church that the purpose of language is not to manipulate, exploit, or deceive; rather, it is to bring people together, to build up, and to create consensus.

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One thought on “Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Telling the Truth

  1. […] with calling someone else insulting names (Matt. 5.21ff). He also insisted that his disciples tell the truth (Matt. 5.33-37). FRC’s combatant words about gays coupled with their apparent unconcern for […]

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