Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:37a “But let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay, nay:. . .”
Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, walked the streets of Athens, holding a lighted lantern up to the faces of strangers. Diogenes, deemed insane by the people, said he was looking for an honest man, a rare commodity still hard to find.
We exaggerate stories or pad numbers to impress others. To avoid embarrassment we deny deeds we did. We lie to escape a difficult situation. We stretch the truth to emphasize a point. We say we will do things, but then go back on our word when it becomes obvious that fulfilling our promise will inconvenience us. The godly “sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not” (PS 15:4). However high the loss or cost to self, the godly will not go back on their word. My Marshall ancestors migrated en masse across the Mississippi River in 1921, moving from west Tennessee to northeast Arkansas. Soon after they settled in, my great-uncle by marriage, Edd Hill, who died before I was born, disappeared one day, leaving behind for weeks a wife and daughter. Only his wife knew what he was doing. He returned to Tennessee to work for a man to pay off the family’s debt to him.
Jesus commanded us to be honest not only when under oath, but also in our “communications,” our everyday conversation, our daily dealings with others. Using the Jewish practice of doubling a word for emphasis, He said our word should be “Yes, yes” or “No, no.” Jesus said our bare words themselves should be emphatic statements of truth. Our yes should be a solid yes, our no a solid no. Our words are to be trustworthy without any verbal ritual needed to give them validity. Saints should never need an oath to buttress or guarantee the truth of our words.
Over the years the one who will be trusted is the one whose character is repeatedly shown to be above suspicion in all things. In this way one’s simple declaration finally becomes enough. We should act toward one another with such sincerity and honesty that no one would ever dream of asking an oath from us.
A chief characteristic of Christians must ever be transparent goodness, no evasion, no hidden agendas, nothing on our tongue but what is in our heart. We abhor the duplicity of Euripides, who said, “My tongue has sworn, but my mind is unsworn.” Believers, called to a life of truth, should intensely hate any semblance of deceit. Our attitude should parallel the one pictured in a statue which presents Truth as a woman with helmet and sword. At her feet lies Slander, conquered and humiliated. As she steps on Slander to give the final crushing blow, Truth lifts her robe to avoid its polluting touch. We all have a right to a certain degree of privacy, but ought to live and speak in such a way that we really do not need it.
Matt. 5:37b “. . .for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”
Oaths must be rare and reverent, for they lose their significance with careless repetition. Offering them often and glibly makes them trite, and trivializes truth in everyday speech by making one less careful about the truthfulness of statements made without oaths. Frequent oaths almost sanction “a common lie.”
The use of numerous oaths makes our bare words more suspicious, and is in and of itself an indictment, an indication one does not always tell the truth. J. Vernon McGee said he would not believe a person who says, “I’d swear on a stack of Bibles a mile high,” because the person is probably telling a lie a mile high. Seek to avoid oaths when possible. Honest people do not need them; liars do not mean them.
Simply learn to be habitually accurate in all we say. Pythagoras, Greek philosopher and mathematician, said we are most like God when we speak truth. This reason is cause enough for children of the King to speak truth always. If Diogenes were here, how long would he have to search to find an honest person?
Matt. 5:38a “Ye have heard that it hath been said,. . .”
Jesus here gives a fifth contrast in delineating the righteousness which must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees (5:20). The latter twisted a law intended solely for courts of law into a justification for private revenge, saying a wronged person had the right to take the law into his own hands and exact vengeance.
Jesus disagreed, for at least three reasons. First, because He loves us, He wants us to enjoy a life of freedom. The most enslaved people are those who yield themselves as pawns to the insults of others. Jesus wants to set us set free from the slavery of having our state of mind and “behavior determined by the way we are treated” (Augsburger). We Americans are watching a tragedy unfold. A famous basketball player is losing his career because he is out of control, too easily angered by the taunts of others. His temper makes him the slave of his opponents.
Jesus disagreed with personal revenge for a second reason. Because He loves us, He wants us to enjoy a life of victory. Defeat is not meant to be part of a Christian’s life. “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. . . .Never take your own revenge. . . .Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (RM 12:17,19,21). To take revenge is to be “overcome,” which means to be defeated, but when we respond to “evil with good” we “overcome,” which means we win, and victory is what we must be seeking in every phase of life. Never be satisfied with anything less than absolute victory. Avoiding revenge will not always change our adversary for the better, but often will, and is our best weapon in having a chance to win them. Avoiding revenge also delivers us from the defeat of descending to the level of the wrong-doer. Never be content to live on the same level with evil men. Avoiding revenge gives us victory in that it keeps us from the defeat of losing God’s smile. Never be content to live one instant under His frown.
Jesus disagreed with personal revenge for a third reason. Because He loves us, He wants us to enjoy a life of calm contentment. He does not want us controlled, and thereby made miserable, by the mean spirit of others. The loser in every argument is the one who carries it away with him in order to seek revenge later. The lust for vengeance becomes an all-consuming fire in one’s own soul, and turns into a bitterness which rots away one’s very vitals.
Jesus desires us to live by His direction, to guide our lives down paths of joy He lays out before us. In His strength, we can overcome insults, be unvexed by mean people’s passions, and unperturbed by injuries inflicted on us by others.
This life of calm contentment reflects Christ’s life. We do not want to act like, and thus be identified with, Scribes and Pharisees. We rather want the world to see Jesus in us, and this will happen only when our lives are unruffled and calm. “The tempest-ruffled sea mirrors no stars by night, nor is blued by day” (Maclaren), and the world never sees Jesus in a Christian who strikes back with revenge.
Jesus Himself is our inspiration. He endures much at our hand. We prove we appreciate this fact by being willing to endure much at the hand of others.