“Midrash # 3: Lying”
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 15, 2017
University Baptist Church
We have reached the apex of the five sermons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount Reversals. We have already dealt with murder, anger, insults, name-calling, divorce, lust and adultery. In the coming weeks we’ll look at violence, vengeance, nonviolence and the way we deal with our enemies. How’s that for setting up the Reformation season? Today we deal with the curses that too often spill out of our mouths (Dang). Jesus does not make it easy to follow him. And yet pushes us to strive to be better than the rest of the world.
Walter Wink says that every word that Jesus utters is an indictment against the domination system—that system that lords profit over people, hatred over love, might over right, fear over reconciliation, my needs over everyone else’s needs. The domination system is not interested in reconciliation or justice or mercy or compassion. It is interested in securing place for one group over another, by any means necessary.
Jesus’ mission was to say that the domination system, although in bed with popular religion, has nothing to do with God.
You have heard it said, you shall not swear falsely, but I say to you, don’t swear at all. This doesn’t have anything to do with profanity. It has to do with integrity. Honesty is a central piece of Jesus’ righteousness. Dishonesty, implies Jesus, is a much worse form of profanity than saying a forbidden word. Injustice is a form of profanity. Racism is a form of profanity. Denial of privilege is a form of profanity, especially when it is used to prevent the claiming of rights and advantages to certain classes of people. Jesus seeks to reverse our worldview by saying that some of the things we have called sacred, like devout oaths and vows are actually profane inasmuch as they mask dishonesty.
You remember that Glen Stassen talks about the reversal formula found in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts out with an ancient teaching, points out a reversal and how we are caught in a vicious cycle. He then offers a transforming initiative. A way out. A new way of encountering the world.
You have heard it said, don’t swear falsely. That’s the traditional teaching as old as the 10 commandments.
In this time when our leaders bare false witness with abandon and any confrontation with facts is called “fake news”, where do we go to find the truth? Do we even believe those who are sworn to tell us the truth? Who benefits from their versions of truth? How might we reverse our course to something more helpful and redemptive?
There’s a great exchange in the musical “Wicked” between the Wizard of Oz and the Elphaba, the so-called wicked witch of the West. As Elphaba unveils him as a shyster, the Wizard defends himself by saying:
“I only lied to them verbally. Besides, they were lies they wanted to hear. The truth is not a thing of fact or reason. The truth is just what everyone agrees on. Where I’m from we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it “history”. A man’s called a “traitor”—or “liberator”.
A rich man’s a “thief”—or “philanthropist”.
Is one a “crusader”—or a “ruthless invader?”
It’s all in which label is able to persist. There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities. So we act as if they don’t exist. They call me “wonderful.” So I am wonderful. In fact, it’s so much who I am that it’s part of my name. And with my help, you can be the same.” We all know that her name becomes “wicked,” whether based on fact or fiction.
Deciding what is true and what is not is an important exercise. Consider this: it is a relatively recent idea that we look at the Bible as inerrant and infallible—a practice many call bibliolatry—making an idol of the Bible. During the first of my three ordination councils 28 years ago, one person who was horrified by my candidacy asked me to give my statement of faith. I said, “I’m a child of God and I feel called to spread the good news of justice, mercy peace and liberation to all of the people.” He said, “That’s not a statement of faith. A statement of faith is saying that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant Word of God and you have to base your life upon that.” He voted against me. One person confided that he thought I ought to just tell them what they wanted to hear, get the credential and then make changes from the inside. Basically begin my ministry with a set of lies. I didn’t take his advice, which is probably why it took three Ordination Councils for me to pass.
You have heard it said, “don’t swear falsely.” That’s the traditional teaching.
Then there is the reversal and vicious cycle, “But I say to you don’t swear at all.” Jesus then goes into a discussion about oaths and vows.
The vicious cycle is that there are layers of oaths: to God, the king, the earth. Is one better than another? If you swore by the altar it was binding but not if you swore by the city. Clyde Tilley called this loophole gymnastics.
Greek-Jewish theologian Philo said, that the mere fact of swearing casts suspicion on the trustworthiness of the one who swears. If someone cannot be trusted unless they are under oath, then how can they be trusted at all?
Later on in Matthew, Jesus would develop this thought a bit: Matthew 23:16-22:
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ 19 How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21 and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; 22 and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.”
There were clearly vows and oaths that people took more seriously than others. It caused a problem. Which were you bound by: Vows toward heaven (God’s throne), the earth (God’s footstool) or Jerusalem (the city of the great king), nor by your head?
The ten commandments talks about bearing false witness, like in a legal trial.
Puts saying the pledge of allegiance into context, doesn’t it. To whom are we making a pledge? Are we swearing to the flag? How about when we face the flag and sing the National Anthem? Are we making a sacred vow?
I saw on Facebook a meme that said, “Thinking NFL players are protesting the flag is like saying that Rosa Parks was protesting public transportation.”
How about this one: “The NFL players are protesting police brutality and the devaluing of black lives. Thinking they are protesting the flag is the essence of white privilege.”
You have heard it said, don’t swear falsely, but I say to you don’t swear at all, not by heaven, by the throne of God nor by the city of the great king.
Baptists, Quakers and others from the Anabaptist tradition, taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously and a bit literally, have often refused to give oaths or pledges to anyone except God. Some Baptists refuse to swear on the Bible. You’ll often find them using the word “affirm” rather than “vow” or “swear” of “pledge.”
Jesus says in Matthew 15:11 that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” One of the things that upsets me most about the current president is that he behaves in a way that we would not tolerate in our children. There are words that come out of his mouth that are not only patently false, but also downright mean. A child would get a timeout or have to gargle with soap, but not our President. Isn’t it time for a reversal?
Paul talked about speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15). How do we do that? What do we do instead?
Jesus gives us the transforming initiative. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. In other words, live a life of such integrity that you don’t have to swear an oath in order to be considered trustworthy.
This echoes what James says, “Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, so that you will not fall under condemnation. (James 5:12)
So how are you doing on this? What is your deepest truth? What do you know in the fiber of your being? To what do you say an unequivocal yes and a definitive no?
I was impressed by the number of people who came out of the closet and owned their truths this past week. You have my admiration and respect.
Becca and I went to the State Capital yesterday—she with her nasty woman shirt and her pink pussy hat, me with my gray hair—shivering in the cold and listening to speaker after speaker tell their truth. She insisted on going. It was a way of saying yes to her belief system and a no to the collective consciousness that she has found at some of her college circles where people do not think that black or native or women’s rights matter enough to take a stand. She reminded me of who I am.
You have heard it said, do not swear falsely. We can all agree on that. But Jesus says don’t swear at all, to God, the altar, to the king or even the king’s symbol. Instead live with such integrity that you need not swear to be considered truthful. That’s a high bar and it’s vital if we are to be people of faithful integrity. That might even mean contending with what people say about the Bible.
It might mean digging deeper to find the elusive truth of God.
It might mean challenging popular beliefs and reversing the way we do things.
But imagine if we could all be trusted. What a relief that would be.