From 2015 to 2018 I preached a series of messages on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. This messaged was preached in 2018. Article 20: Truth.
It is common practice in courts of law to make people swear an oath to tell the truth.
“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 NIV
After I married Millie, I began the process to get permanent residency in the US, also known as the green card process. The process has a lot of steps, including an interview with an immigration official where both Millie and I were asked questions. During this interview, he asked us to swear to tell the truth. Millie and I were both caught off guard, we didn’t realize that we’d be asked to swear an oath. Unrehearsed and almost in unison, we refused to swear the oath. Instead, we both affirmed to tell the truth. We could tell the official was surprised. He accepted our affirmation.
Mennonites are not the only ones that avoid the swearing of oaths. What is interesting is that this idea had been so deeply impressed on me as a child in church that I actually responded in the way that I had been taught. Article 20 of our confession of faith is titled Truth. It is based primarily on this scripture in Matthew 5 that I just read. The first 2 paragraphs from article 20:
We commit ourselves to tell the truth, to give a simple yes or no, and to avoid swearing of oaths. Jesus told his disciples not to swear oaths at all, but to let their yes be yes, and their no be no. We believe that this teaching applies to truth telling as well as to avoiding profane language. An oath is often sworn as a guarantee that one is telling the truth. This implies that when one has not taken an oath, one may be less careful about telling the truth. Jesus’ followers are always to speak the truth and, in legal matters, simply to affirm that their statements are true.
When I was in elementary school, the playground rules were that you could tell a lie if you crossed your fingers. It is a childish rule and we normally learn later that a lie is still a lie even if you have your fingers crossed. In Mathew 5, Jesus is indicating that a similar game was used by adults in his day and mostly for bad purposes.
There are 2 scripture that help shed some light on what might have been happening:
Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.Deuteronomy 6:13 NIV
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.Leviticus 19:12 NIV
It’s not that Jesus is necessarily against the taking of oaths, but what seems to have happened is that culturally, people were making or taking oaths so that what they said would carry more authority, yet they didn’t go so far as to take an oath in God’s name because they didn’t want to unintentionally profane God’s name, so they ended up creating a game like hierarchy of things that someone could swear by instead of swearing by God’s name to add more or less authority to what they said. They were allowing themselves to stretch the truth.
Jesus wants everyone stop playing these games because they are like crossing fingers behind your back. In the Law of Moses, it is quite clear that oaths are never required, but the law is also quite clear that if you do make a promise it can only ever be in God’s name. As a follower of Jesus, you never need to take an oath in God’s name, because every word of agreement, every promise, every vow or consent is assumed to be in God’s name.
The game of making oaths is simply a game of deception, a game played by Satan.
Lies and deception
In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers show their father Jacob Joseph’s coat covered with blood and Jacob assumes, incorrectly, that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.Genesis 3:1-7 NIV
How we define lies is important, especially for children. If a lie is strictly an outright false statement, then the serpent in Genesis only said one lie where the serpent says “You will not certainly die” and even then, when Eve ate the fruit, she didn’t die instantly. Most of what the serpent spoke was the truth. What is more important is how the serpent uses truth to make God look like the enemy of Adam and Eve. The serpent never says God is against them, but it is implied by what he says. The purpose of truth for the serpent is to deceive.
One definition of lying says that a lie is when we say something with the intent to deceive. Using this definition means that saying something that is essentially a truth could be considered a lie if you use it to create the wrong impression.
What you might find shocking is my next statement: I have willingly participated in a deception. I have tricked someone into attending a surprise birthday party. It is always important to look at the intent of a deception. In this case, it was to show the person that they are loved by many. I think that they forgive us who participated in the surprise.
There are a number of times where important heroes of scripture also participate in deception and it is usually pretty easy to figure out the reason why: Abraham called his wife Sarah his sister. She was his half sister, but he used that truth to cover up that Sarah was his wife. He did this because he was afraid. When Joseph was ruling in Egypt, he hid his true identity from his brothers and played a pretty nasty prank on them calling them spies and punishing them. David lied to a priest when he was fleeing king Saul, he also pretended to be crazy in a Philistine town so that he could avoid being killed and later, when he was king over Israel, he tried to cover up his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah the Hittite.
The point I’m making is that lies are more than just saying something that is untrue. Using truth to deceive can create a lie. And not all deceptions are for evil purposes.
What Jesus is pointing to in Matthew 5 is about being people of integrity. When he says let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no”, it is another way of saying let people understand the truth of your purpose.
In the past, I have been manipulated to do things that hurt others because people were not honest about their motives. Everything they said might have been the truth, but it created a lie that I believed and they knew it. It was not good. Those people lost integrity and they hurt my integrity in the process.
The power of words to manipulate others is dangerous and it’s something that I realize that I also have. It’s important to understand that Jesus is calling us to all be people of integrity and to speak in ways that allow others to understand the truth of our motives.
Making God do what we want
The story of Hannah is found in 1st Samuel. Hannah prayed and cried to God for a baby. The priest Eli thought that she was drunk, but when he learned that she was praying, he blessed her.
From our confession of faith: Jesus also warned against using oaths to try to compel God to guarantee the future. In faith, we commit our futures to God.
There are a couple of stories in scripture where people make promises to God, if God will act on their behalf. One of the good stories is of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, who made a vow to dedicate her first born son to God if only God would remove her disgrace of being barren. There are a couple of other stories in scripture where people make silly oaths or vows that sound impressive but end badly. In 1st Samuel 14, king Saul made an oath to kill any of his soldiers who ate before finishing the military mission and then his son Jonathan, who didn’t hear the oath, ate honey.
Using promises or oaths to manipulate God into doing what we want is heading in a bad direction. If you want something from God, ask God and be honest about why you want it. God does like giving us good gifts and we are encouraged to ask for good things from God, but even a good gift received for a mostly selfish motive can have bad consequences and God knows this.
Oaths of allegiance
Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.Deuteronomy 6:13 NIV
From our confession of faith: Throughout history, human governments have asked citizens to swear oaths of allegiance. As Christians, our first allegiance is to God. In baptism we pledged our loyalty to Christ’s community, a commitment that takes precedence over obedience to any other social and political communities.
I am a Canadian citizen because I was born in Canada. I didn’t need to take any oath to become Canadian. I am not an American citizen, not because I’m against becoming a citizen, but because there is an oath of allegiance. In preparing for this sermon, I did read that it is possible to recite a modified version of the oath so that it might fit my faith convictions.
Article 23 of our confession talks more about national identity and faith, so I won’t talk a lot about this today, except to say that we often gloss over the oaths that countries can make their citizens take and these oaths can cause us to be contrary to God’s Kingdom purpose.
What is truth?
This is a painting of Pilate interviewing Jesus before Jesus is sentenced to death.
If you can use truth to create a lie, then what is truth? While truth might be hard to grasp, it is not impossible. When Jesus says let your “Yes” mean “Yes” and your “No” mean “No” he is calling us to be transparent about our motives.
To be people of integrity, we need to first be honest with ourselves. Then we need to learn to be honest about our motives with others. It’s not as easy as it sounds. For example, Millie and I can say that we lead with integrity as pastors, but we also get paid to lead, so how much of our leading is affected by getting paid for it? Am I paid to be everyone’s friend?
I do like getting paid for church work, it really helps with making ends meet. It is tempting to hide the selfish aspects of my motives, but to not acknowledge it would only hurt my own integrity and that in turn hurts the church. Millie has mentioned to me how her friends outside the church are suspicious of her motives because she is a pastor.
When we are not transparent about our motives, truth becomes confused. Truth can be used to gain power and power is used to create truth. Before Jesus was crucified, Pilate interviewed Jesus to determine what Jesus had done wrong to deserve death. Pilate’s response to Jesus reflects a common understanding of truth:
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.John 18:37-38 NIV