But I say to you… (Matt 5:21-37)

One of the most remarkable features of Jesus’ earthly ministry was his teaching. The Gospels tell us that crowds flocked to hear him speak, and were “amazed” by what they heard. But, interestingly, it wasn’t the stories and parables that he told which particularly amazed them. It wasn’t his great oratory or rhetoric. What amazed Jesus’ hearers, we’re told, was his teaching authority. He taught on his own authority, not like the rabbis of his day. 

When Jesus taught he simply said, “I say to you”. He expected his words to be enough. In contrast, the Jewish rabbis of his time would never venture their own opinion. Rather, they would quote from previous scholars. They would cite earlier religious authorities to make their case.

But not so with Jesus. He expected his words alone to suffice. Indeed, in our passage today we see Jesus placing his words, his teaching above that of previous Jewish traditions. In fact, he even places them above the Old Testament teaching of Moses. The teaching of Jesus is one sign that he saw himself as God’s Son, with all the authority that implies.

Over the past fortnight we’ve been looking at some very challenging passages in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Words which he addressed to his first disciples – words which we should also obey if we’re his followers today. Today’s reading was equally challenging, wasn’t it? Four times he deepens and extends Old Testament teaching on ethical conduct. Four times Christ claims the authority to intensify the moral standards set by Moses:

  • So for example, in verse 22 Jesus doesn’t merely repeat Moses’ command not to murder – he tells them to avoid anger as well. Christ knew that many a murder has its origins in anger, so we should seek reconciliation with those who wrong us, and never not seek to take retribution or revenge.
  • In verse 28 Jesus doesn’t simply tell his disciples to avoid adultery – he tells them to avoid lustful looks at a woman as well. Because Christ knew that every act of adultery begins with a lustful look. 
  • And, most challengingly of all, in verse 32 Jesus says that only the act of adultery is sufficient grounds for divorce. Christ went beyond Moses in his affirmation of the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. He affirms it as a God-given institution to be treated with the utmost respect – a one-flesh union to be protected and preserved, not dissolved at the first sign of disagreement between husband and wife.

After dealing with murder and marriage, Jesus then turns his attention to our mouths. In verses 33 to 37  he tackles the topic of truth and lies – of honesty and of oaths. This is what I’d like to spend a little time on this morning.

Tell the truth! (v.33-36)

I wonder, have you ever taken an oath – or made a solemn vow? Perhaps you’ve been a witness in court, and had to promise to speak “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God”. Or if you’re married, you will have certainly made a solemn vow to be faithful to your spouse “in sickness and in health”. When I was ordained as Church of England minster I also had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Sovereign, and pledge my loyalty to my bishop “in all things lawful and honest.”  And many, many years ago now – as a young Cub Scout – I promised to “do my duty to God and to the Queen”!

The Old Testament and the Jewish tradition certainly had a lot to say about oaths and vows. It specified what to say when, and a whole industry had grown up to discuss when an oath was binding and when it was not – Jewish lawyers must have had a field day! 

In verse 33 today, Jesus quotes one typical Old Testament passage on the subject. Summarising Deuteronomy chapter 23, Jesus says: “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.’” 

But then he goes on to say: “But I tell you, do not swear 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. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’”.

Well what’s going on? What’s wrong with swearing an oath or making a vow? 

What Jesus is saying here, is that Christians should be totally trustworthy and completely honest – whatever the circumstances. We should not need to swear an oath or make a vow, because we should be people who always speak the truth. 

Jesus commands Christians to be people whose ‘yes’ always means ‘yes’ and whose ‘no’ means ‘no’. To be people who keep their word – people of total integrity. If we are people like that, then there will be simply no need for us to swear oaths. No need to supplement our yeses and our noes. No need for us to say things like: “Scout’s honour”, “On my mother’s life” or “cross my heart and hope to die!”

It’s a tough challenge isn’t it? It’s a discipleship challenge that we all have to wrestle with daily.  Depending on our personal circumstances, being totally truthful may involve:

If we Christians are people who speak the truth – people who keep our promises and are known to be honest – then we will shine like stars in our society. We will be totally distinctive (‘Salt and Light’) in a culture that loves spin, exaggeration and fake news. We will be witnesses to truth in the midst of a compromised, fallen world.

Whose side are you on? (v.37)

In sport its easy to tell which side someone is on, isn’t it? Football players wear different coloured kits, so you can see which team they are one. Even politicians wear coloured rosettes so you know which party they represent. But what about Christians? How can we show our allegiance to Jesus in our daily lives? How can we be distinctive and different, like salt and light?

Well, one way is to speak the truth. Did you notice that in the final verse of our passage Jesus links all lies back to the devil. He says that dishonesty and half-truths “come from the evil one”. Elsewhere the Jesus explicitly calls the devil the ‘Father of lies’. Because the devil has been a liar from the very beginning. 

So today, if people deal in deceit, they are doing the devil’s work. If they love lies, they’re aligning themselves with the Evil One. If they constantly make false promises, they’re continuing Satan’s legacy. 

Christians, however, are to be as true to our word as God is to his. We are to be promise-keepers who imitate our faithful Father in Heaven. And we are to be lovers of truth, disciples walking in the footsteps of Jesus – who is the way, the truth and the life.

You see, Jesus didn’t just tell his disciples to be truthful – he modelled it. He practiced what he preached. Writing at the end of his own life, the disciple Peter described Jesus as the one man who never committed a sin – “no deceit” was ever “found in his mouth” (1 Pet 2:22). May his Holy Spirit help us to speak with similar honesty and integrity throughout our daily lives.

Phil Weston