Relationships in the Kingdom – Part 4
May 13, 2001
Could you function if you always had to tell the truth?
Someone who had to come to terms with this question was Fletcher Reede, the slick lawyer played by Jim Carrey in the movie “Liar, Liar.”
Fletcher doesn’t have much of a problem in bending the truth a little (or a lot), whenever there’s a need for it. With a fib here and a fib there, everything goes Fletcher’s way until his always neglected son, Max, makes a wish upon blowing his fifth birthday candles, that for just one day his father wouldn’t be able to tell even the smallest lie.
The wish comes true, and now whenever Fletcher opens his mouth, the only thing that comes out is the truth. Problem is, Fletcher doesn’t think he can function without the capacity to lie.
In the scene we’re going to watch right now, Fletcher goes to Max’s school to discuss this situation with his son.
(SHOW CLIP from Liar, Liar. Fletcher shows up at school with a birthday cake for Max.)
So what do you think?
Could you function if you always had to tell the truth?
Jim Carrey’s character couldn’t. And he didn’t realize it was a problem until his son told him how bad it made him feel.
The truth is, truthfulness affects relationships. When we disguise the truth we are able to get the upper hand – able to obtain an unfair advantage – able to abuse people – able to disappoint people – all for the sake of our own self interests.
A recent New York Times article revealed that 91% of people regularly don’t tell the truth. 20% admit they can’t get through the day without conscious premeditated white lies. And could it be that the folks who say they don’t lie regularly are themselves lying?
In the words of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, this report suggests that, as a society, we have moved very far away from the age when a “man’s word was his bond” to a society in which “people are more accepting than ever before of exaggerations, falsifications, fabrications, misstatements, misrepresentations, gloss-overs, quibbles, concoctions, equivocations, shuffles, prevarications, trims and truth colored and varnished.” (The Ten Commandments, p. 268-269)
It has changed the moral landscape of our nation. People expect that people in the public eye will lie if it serves their purposes. We’ve become complacent with partial-truths, spin-doctoring, context and distortion.
Kim and I went to Greg Boldt and Melissa Shirley’s graduation yesterday at Lincoln Christian College. They belong to the first college graduating class of the new millenium – the class of 2001.
Back in 1990, a Harris poll reported the findings of a survey given to these students who would graduate from college in 2001. When comparing the moral integrity and honesty of their generation with others, the class of 2001 said they were most likely to trust their grandparents’ generation (at 79%), followed by their parents’ generation at 68%. When considering their own generation, the trust level drops to only 25%.
People young and old are witnessing their world become a more treacherous place to live.
But when we consider the relationships Jesus Christ desires for people to have with each other, we find that truthfulness is not an area that allows for any compromise.
In fact, to display the heart Jesus desires to find in His followers,
We must keep our promises and be people of our word.
Jesus has been telling the crowd on the mountainside about how things like uncontrolled anger, unbridled sexual fantasy and easy divorce destroy relationships. Now he turns his attention in Matthew 5:33-37 to this topic of telling the truth:
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
TRANSITION: Let’s learn from Jesus about how to be people of our word. First of all, Jesus points out a problem. He says that…
I. THE PROBLEM WITH OATHS: THEY LEAD TO DECEIT
An oath is simply an appeal to God made in public. A person would call upon God to witness his vow and punish him if he broke it. This was intended to be a barrier against untruthfulness and make statements sound more convincing.
Why would someone need to make a statement or a promise sound more convincing?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The very existence of oaths is a proof that there are such things as lies.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 136)
People used oaths simply because so many people refused to tell the truth.
Remember as kids, what some would say when making a promise? “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” Did you or your friends ever say that?
Well, most everyone knows that you didn’t have to keep a promise if you made it while your fingers were crossed. Say for instance I told my friend Patrick, today after school I’m going to trade you my 1967 Mickey Mantle baseball card for 2 of your Johnny Benches. School ends and Patrick wants his Mickey Mantle, but I say, “No, I had my fingers crossed when I said that, so I’m only going to give you Dave Kingman.” Patrick would probably be upset.
Practices quite similar to this were going on in Jesus day. Listen to His words again:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ (v. 33)
That’s not a direct quotation from the OT, but it is a somewhat accurate summary of OT teachings, and it’s probably the wording his audience had heard this principle taught for years.
The intention was to prohibit false swearing, i.e. making a vow, then breaking it.
But oaths were commonly abused in Jesus’ day. To protect the name of God against inadvertant oath-breaking, common Jewish practice introduced other objects by which to swear. People’s attention had gotten shifted away from the vow itself to the formula used when making it.
So Jewish teachers had a tough job on their hands. When there was a dispute over keeping your word, it was up to them to determine which oaths were actually binding as allusions to God’s name.
The more closely an oath related to God’s name, the more binding it was. You didn’t have to be so particular about keeping vows in which God’s name had not been used. Some people thought it was harmless to deceive if they swore oaths by something like their right hand. Swearing by heaven and earth was not binding, nor was swearing by Jerusalem. However, if you swore toward Jerusalem, then you had to keep your vow.
Jesus elaborates on this some more in Matthew 23:16-22, p. 981
6“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.
Here’s an Example of how that might have played out:
A middle class guy privately sells a tiny piece of property. It’s part of his family’s estate handed down to him, but needs the cash. Buyer makes a modest downpayment, a solemn oath is sworn to pay the rest, and the deed to the property is transferred.
The buyer begins work on a brand new house. Three months pass, and finally the seller stops by to see the buyer. Amid the crowd of workers hammering and sawing away on the jobsite, the seller spies the buyer looking over a set of plans with the general contractor.
(Seller) “It’s been awhile since I’ve received any payment from you. You sure you’ve sent them to the correct address?”
(Buyer) “No, I believe any business between you and me has already been completed.”
(Seller) “What are you talking about? You only gave me $5000. We agreed you’d pay me in full, through monthly installments over the next three years! What’s more you swore by gold of the temple!”
Without looking up from the plans, the buyer says, “No, I didn’t. I only swore by temple. You thought I said the gold of the temple, but I didn’t.”
(Seller) “Are you out of your mind?! You owe me $45,000 and you know it.”
So they take this before the council, and the council says, “Did you swear to pay this man in full for the property?”
Seller says, “Yes, he did! He swore by the gold of the temple.”
“Is this true?”
(Buyer) “No, it’s not. I did swear by the temple, but not by the gold of the temple.”
“Well,” says the council, “there’s nothing we can do about that. Everyone knows swearing by the temple is a non-binding oath. Case dismissed.”
“But this guy still owes me $45,000! I was counting on this to send my daughter to college.”
“Sorry. You should have known better.”
And so yet another person gets taken to the cleaners by way of a dirty little trick. Lesson learned: The appearance of honesty isn’t so honest. The seller didn’t know about that technicality. He figured an oath was an oath. That’s just how business got done. Unfortunately for him, one oath apparently isn’t as good as another.
And this nonsense is what Jesus says has to stop.
I wonder if we ever fall into a similar trap.
Do we ever play the system to shade the truth when it is to our advantage to do so? Do we ever use slightly deceptive tactics when the truth might hurt us, or even as an act of what we feel is compassion, when the truth might hurt someone else?
When borrowing something like a book, a hammer, a pie plate that we’ve kept for far too long do we rationalize by saying, “I never expressly said when I’d give it back.”
Maybe with a friend we remember, “I only said, ‘Sometime we’ll have you over.’ But I didn’t put a date on it.”
Honest, I only need 5 minutes of your time
I swear, I already sent it
Yes, sir, It’s finished and sitting on my desk
Your table will be ready in just a minute
We service what we sell
On and on it goes…
Are these the truth, or are they word games? Statements made with our fingers crossed behind our backs. Oaths we know aren’t really binding.
Jesus exposes the problem with solemn oaths. They can lead to deceit and trickery, while we implore people to trust us.
TRANSITION: How do we resolve this?
II. THE SOLUTION FROM JESUS: JUST TELL THE TRUTH
But I tell you, Do not swear at all. (Matthew 5:34)
Jesus says don’t do it. Don’t use those non-binding oaths that you think cleverly avoid using God’s name, but still sound so holy and so binding. You’re being deceitful! Don’t swear by heaven – guess what? It’s God’s throne!
Don’t swear by the earth – you know why? It’s God’s footstool.
Don’t swear by your head – even that’s not your own – God created that too.
Jesus says all oaths invoke God’s presence equally. Everything that exists was made by him. And every word is uttered in his presence.
Just tell the truth!
ILLUS - The Dr. Suess book, Horton Hatches the Egg is the tale of an elephant, named Horton, who promises to sit on an egg and hatch it for this bird, lazy Mayzie. As the days and weeks go by, Horton just keeps sitting there on that nest up in a tree. All his friends encourage him to forget his promise and play with them. Do you remember his response? “I meant what I said, I said what I meant. An elephant is faithful, 100%.”
Jesus’ command to us is similar. Don’t worry about making vows, just say what you mean and mean what you say. When we open our mouths, let nothing but the truth come out.
Some people think this kind of policy will get them into trouble.
ILLUS – It’s like the couple speeding down the highway when a State Trooper pulled them over. He asked the man to step out of the car and show him his license. The trooper asked, "Did you realize you were going 85 miles an hour back there?"
The man said, "Officer, that would be impossible. I’m the most law-abiding driver you’ve ever seen. I never exceed the speed limit, no matter my circumstances."
The policeman leaned into the window of the car and asked the wife, "Is that true?" "No Officer, it’s not, he drives like a maniac, he speeds wherever he goes, his driving scares me to death."
The policeman wrote out a ticket. Then he said, "I also noticed you didn’t have your seat belt on, which is against the law in this state.”
“Officer,” the man said, “with all due respect, I value life too highly. Buckle up, that’s my motto."
The policeman asked the wife, "Is that true? "
"Are you kidding? I’ve never seen him wear the thing, you’d probably find cobwebs in his seat belt."
The policeman began to write him another ticket. About that time, the man leaned in the window and screamed, "Woman, what are you trying to do to me? Keep your big fat nose out of my business!"
The officer said, "Ma’am, does he always talk to you like that?"
She replied, "Only when he’s drunk."
Yes, some think telling the truth will just get them into trouble.
But in reality not telling the truth gets us into even bigger trouble:
Like the young American engineer who was sent to Ireland for a year. When he left, his fiancee gave him a harmonica. She said, "I want you to learn to play this to keep your mind off those Irish girls."
So he wrote and told her he was practicing the harmonica every night. After a year she met him at the airport, he grabbed her to kiss her and she pushed back and said, "Wait, before you kiss me, I want to hear you play the harmonica."
That’s a pretty sharp lady right there!
TRANSITION: Jesus says, just tell the truth. You’ll always be better off. Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no. How can we begin to work on this? Let’s finish up by looking at…
III. HOW TO LET YOUR YES BE YES AND YOUR NO, NO
Admit your struggle
At some time, we all struggle with the truth, don’t we? Sometimes it’s just easier to fib a bit.
Sort of the like the church where the preacher told the congregation to read Joshua chapter 25 in preparation for next Sunday’s sermon. Sunday came and he began by asking, “How many of you prepared for this morning by reading Joshua 25?” Half the hands in the church were raised. The preacher said, “Great. Now you’re the ones I want to talk to. Joshua only has 24 chapters, and I’m especially concerned about you this morning.”
Seriously, I don’t know if there is anything our culture despises any more than dishonesty coming from people who claim to be Christians. You and I can do irreparable damage to our witness, and even to the cause of Christ through not being people of our word. This is a big deal.
If the world is ever to see Jesus Christ in us, it is going to be through consistent displays of truthfulness. If we trip up here, we will never gain the respect of this culture.
People today are searching for authenticity – anywhere they can find it.
Tarot card reader on TV – her caption – “Miss Cleo keeps it real!” Here’s someone you can trust with the deepest questions of life.
One beer company had a recent advertising campaign where they ended their TV commercials with one word on the screen next to their logo - “True”
If beer can be true, how much more should followers of the way, the truth and life be able to keep it real? Admit truthfulness can be a struggle – but no matter, Jesus says, “Tell the truth!”
Second…If you want our yes to mean yes and our no, no, you’ve got to…
Monitor your promises
Reliability builds credibility. Can others count on you to follow through and do what you say you will do?
Psalm 15:4 describes a righteous person as one “who keeps his oath even when it hurts.” Do you and I keep our promises, no matter how small, even when it hurts?
Do we ever say…“I’ll pray for you”… just because it sounds like the right thing to say?
What about promises to your children? Do you follow through?
In your business, how about promises you make in your advertising – can you really deliver?
If we’re ever going to live by Jesus words on truth-telling, we’re going to have to monitor our promises very closely. Say what we mean and mean what we say.
ILLUS – I’ve told you before how when I was a Youth Minister, I was eager to be helpful. Someone would ask me to do something, I’d say, “Sure! That’s something I can do.” One time on a Sunday morning, a parent asked me to speak to her son. I said, “Sure.” I didn’t know her son very well, the conversation ended and I was quickly speaking to someone else. A couple of months later, Earl (the Sr. Minister) had me in his office. “Did you promise Mrs. So and So you’d talk to her son? She’s really upset with you that you never did.”
So now, if someone ever asks me to do something, and I say, “Sure!” I write it down. Immediately. Some of you have chuckled at me for doing this, but I don’t want to damage my witness for Jesus Christ by not being a person of my word.
Just yesterday I discovered more dishonesty in my life. I returned to the office after being down in Lincoln, and listened to my voice mail. My greeting said I would be out of the office Friday afternoon and Saturday, so I had only one message – it was from a telemarketing company that frequently calls the church. I immediately deleted it, and then proceeded to record a new greeting which like the old one said, “If you leave me a message I will call you back.” And then it struck me. By not calling back the Telemarketer I have ceased to be a man of my word. So tomorrow morning I’m going to find this company’s number on their website and give this rep a call.
Because yes means yes and a promise is a promise
Third…if you’re to do what Jesus asks, you have to…
Examine your motives
“Truthfulness means honesty in your communications. It also means integrity in your character.”
Here’s what Ann Hibbard wrote in Life at Work Journal…
The test of character comes when being truthful endangers what you want. (Ann Hibbard, “Building Trust,” Life at Work Journal, March/April 2000, p. 16)
Did you hear that? The test of character comes when being truthful endangers what you want.
So we need to examine our motives very carefully. What do we really want? Do we want success, even at the expense of relationships? Do we desire acceptance, even if it means being less than truthful?
Some people think Jesus words prohibit taking the oath in a court of law. Actually, Jesus just wants truthfulness. If our motives are pure we’ll be just as truthful in daily interactions as we would if we place our hands on a Bible and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
TRANSITION: Jesus wants us to keep our promises and be people of our word.
You know, God honors simple honesty:
Back in the 18th Century King Frederick of Prussia visited a prison in Berlin. One inmate after another tried to convince the monarch of his innocence.
Amazing! To hear them tell it, they were all being unjustly punished for crimes they never committed – all that is, except one man who sat quietly in a corner while all the rest unfolded their lengthy and complicated stories.
Seeing him sitting there, oblivious to the commotion, the king asked the man why he was in prison. “Armed robbery, your Honor.”
The king asked, “Were you guilty?”
“Yes, sir,” he answered without attempting to excuse his wrongdoing.
King Frederick then gave the guard an order: “Release this guilty man. I don’t want him corrupting all these innocent people.”
Part of telling the truth begins with telling God the truth about ourselves. “God, I’m a sinner. I need your help. Only you can set me free.”
With that kind of faith in Jesus, God is willing to say, “I release this guilty man. I release this guilty woman. Go and live a life of truth – a life sold out to Jesus – and tell others the truth you have found.”