It would be a mistake to read the various sections (many Bibles insert topical headings) of the Sermon on the Mount as disparate and unrelated ethical and moral teachings. To do so risks reducing this great body of teaching by the Lord to a mere laundry list of Do’s & Don’ts, missing the great themes of the passage. Jesus is painting the picture of what it looks like to live under the reign (Kingdom) of God – this is the Gospel, not just personal salvation, but the breaking in of God’s coming Kingdom, first in the life of Jesus and then in His followers – this entails the reconciliation of ruptured vertical (human to God) and horizontal (human to human) relationships.
It’s interesting that this section on oaths and truth telling comes right after a section on lust and another on divorce. Perhaps it is more fitting to see the section on divorce as sandwiched between sections on lust and truth telling. N. T. Wright, in his commentary on Matthew, suggests that this is a deliberate arrangement. Many ruptured marriages can trace the initial fissure to either uncontrolled lust and/or a lack of honesty and integrity on the part either spouse. Were we taught to resist the lies of lust and to guard the incredible value of our word, perhaps there would be less broken marriages in our society.
The application of this passage however, does not end at marriage. Marriage, the relationship lifted up in scripture as perhaps both the most profound and sacred horizontal relationship, also images the intimacy within the Trinity and looks forward to the final fulfillment of scripture, when we shall all enjoy together the unabashed intimacy, love, and communion that so many of us long for now in a romantic relationship. Jesus is saying that little true fellowship, true community, true sharing in the common life can be possible if we are not true to our words. To risk sounding cliche, our word is our bond, we must say what we mean, mean what we say, and follow through with our commitments. In other words, we must maintain real integrity with all that comes out of our mouths. It may seem like a small matter, but how much trust has been damaged, how much intimacy lost, how many relationships ruptured due to lies, half-truths, and failure to deliver on the commitments our mouths have promised?
This can be a real area of battle for me personally. I guess I could talk about the examples that were handed down to me from various adults during my formative years, but that hazards becoming an excuse. The truth is, somewhere along the line of my life I learned that it was easier and more convenient for me to not honor the integrity of my speech. Since then it has been a battle to recapture this essential value in my life. There shouldn’t ever be a need to prove that our words are true and reliable – through consistent habitual integrity we should display the reliability of what we say. Let’s be realistic, honesty and integrity is inconvenient and hard work, but there is no other way for a disciple of Christ.
Some questions to ponder for personal application:
- Do you find it necessary to use any sort of strong language or many words to convince people of the truth or reliability of what you say? Why is that?
- Are there any areas of your life in which you have told or continue to tell lies of convenience?
- Do you deliver on the commitments of your word? If you say you will do something, do you? If you say you will pray for someone, does it happen? If you promise to arrive at a certain time will you?
- If we surveyed your closest relationships (best friends, spouses, family members, coworkers, boss, etc) in this area, what would they say about you?