Living For God and Real Speech (Matt 5:33-37)

Bible Passage: Matthew 5:33-37

In this passage there is another case study in Jesus’ comparison of the life he calls his disciples to with the life of the religious leaders of the day. His broad point is that God is looking to do a deep work that changes us from the inside, and therefore we should not settle for merely outward conformity to a set of rules or regulations. In this example, Jesus looks at the specific issue of inflated speech. The received wisdom was that there were particular vows that should be kept, and especially when the vow was made by the gold in the sanctuary or the gift on the altar. But Jesus saw through these ideas and exposed them as hollow.

Making Oaths Can Devalue Sacred Realities : As Jesus addresses the issue of oaths, he is taking aim at people who have set up an hierarchy of things to swear on, where some are binding and some are not, but this fails to recognise the sacredness of all things. It doesn’t work to distinguish swearing to God from swearing by heaven or even by earth or Jerusalem, as heaven and earth and Jerusalem all belong to God. And in Matthew 23:16-22, Jesus develops the idea and points out that the gold in the sanctuary and gift on the altar are less valuable than the sanctuary and altar themselves. Any oath can be ultimately traced back to God and so it doesn’t work to introduce multiple tiers of oaths, some of which are binding and some of which are not.

Making Oaths Can Ignore Our Inability: An alternative oath that Jesus highlights is someone swearing by their own head. An equivalent today may be someone saying ‘cross my heart, hope to die’. Ultimately this comes down to superstition as none of us have the power to bring about the thing we are saying and so the words are hollow.

Making Oaths Reveals a System of Deceit: In verse 37, Jesus brings us to his main point. There is no need to inflate speech. Letting our words stand for themselves and sticking by whatever we say, whether that is ‘yes’ or ‘no’ alleviates the need for oaths and promises. As we develop reputations for consistent truthfulness then our words will carry weight and be trusted. It is only when ordinary speech is deceptive that a separate category of speech needs to be created for those times when the person speaking ‘really’ means it.

The call here is to a life of authentic speech, saying what we mean and meaning what we say. It means renouncing lies, half-truths and even using technically true words to mislead. It does not mean that things need to be hurtful or unkind (the Bible has a lot of wisdom on knowing when to be slow to speak) but it does mean living in a genuine way that is countercultural in an age of fake news and spin.

Potential Applications:

  • There is a straightforward call here to reconsider where we inflate our speech with extra promises and oaths but instead build a reputation for truthfulness.
  • There could be a moment for people to reflect on their own words and where they have used those words (or other ways of communication) to mislead, and to repent of those times.
  • In John’s gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the truth and calls the Holy Spirit ‘the Spirit of truth’. Living the truthful life by our own strength is difficult, and you could pray for the Spirit to fill and empower people to live a life of truth.