Through these articles, I’ve tried to present the teachings of Jesus in a simple form through which someone on any level could familiarize themself with what Jesus came to start.
If you’d like to start from the beginning of the series, CLICK HERE!
In former posts, we’ve noticed that Jesus uses a formula to unveil His new way of living. He will refer to a well-known command or practice by saying, “You have heard it said…”. Then, after reciting the common rule, Jesus would say, “…but I tell you…”, and give His new take on the old ideas.
We’re now to the fourth occurrence of this formula. Jesus is going to talk about choosing honesty over deceptive scheming. This is Matthew 5, still in the first chapter of the three-chapter sermon that most concisely lays out Jesus’ teachings, the Sermon On the Mount.
33 “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.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
In Jesus’ day, it was common practice to amp up your “promises” with oaths. However, these oaths were not meant to add factors of honesty to the assertion. Rather, in swearing by certain elements of Jewish culture, one was actually tricking the listener. A modern example might be swearing “by the hair on my grandpa’s head” that I’ll pay you back. Sounds like I’m amping up the promise, but I alone know that my grandpa wears a toupee. His hair is fake! Maybe I was being technically or legally honest with you; after all, his hair is fake and so was my promise. The whole thing was a trick. I deceived you, but with “honest” language. This was apparently a regular part of the culture of the religious elite in Jesus’ time. They came up with schemes to pull off deception for a dishonest gain of some kind.
Jesus calls for an end to this practice. He calls for an end to deceitful scheming. For Jesus, our baseline commitment to completely honest speech renders any need to amp up with oaths or promises totally useless. If you are always honest, never intending to deceive, or distort, there would never be any need to “swear to God” in order to validate your words.
Obviously, we can apply this to our words and conversations. I think we can also apply this to passive-aggressive behavior. Sometimes we try, often without knowing it, to suggest things while maintaining deniability. A certain look or a well placed, “that’s fine…” (arms crossed), can go a long way toward trying to get our way while maintaining the ability to respond with, “I didn’t say anything.” Jesus teaches his followers to let their “yes” mean yes, and their “no” means no. Followers of Jesus say what they mean, and mean what they say.
I think we should also apply this teaching to manipulation. Similar to swearing by something as to deceitfully amp up language to lead another in a false direction, manipulative conversation seeks to lead a person places without being forthright. Manipulation is a form of deceit; it works in secret, just beneath the surface. If you manipulate others, your yes isn’t yes. You are communicating in a way that guides someone deceptively toward your end goal. It’s the same as lying, really.
I would encourage you to apply this teaching to every corner of your conversations and interactions. Are you honest? Also, are you forthright? I’m certainly not suggesting you always have to share the whole truth! If dinner tastes terrible, you don’t need to say something about it to honor Jesus’ call for honesty. Sometimes people don’t need to know all of your opinions. I am saying that we should avoid communicating, verbally or otherwise, in ways that deceive or manipulate in order to gain something from someone or to trick them. This seems to be the spirit of Jesus’ teachings, don’t trick your fellow humans with your speech in order to gain from them.
Lying. Passive-aggressive darts. Manipulation. When we dip down into those lower levels of human interaction, we are not following Jesus.
I’m telling you, Jesus’ vision for humanity is really good!