"Be careful; your nose is growing!" The inspiration for this warning is the Disney movie Pinocchio. In the story, when the little wooden boy told a lie, his nose would grow longer.
When we’re very young, our attempts at deception are rather artless and obvious. I recall, at the age of five, being asked by the emergency physician how I had managed to break my ankle. I didn’t want to tell him that I’d jumped off of a flight of stairs; my dad had brought me to the hospital and I was afraid to tell the truth. So I explained, "I ran so hard that my leg just broke!"
Actually, it’s not just the disposition of children. People, generally, are not especially good truth tellers. In fact, the only thing that changes over time is the sophistication and subtlety with which the truth is "massaged" to avoid punishment and confrontation, or to avoid the pain of punishment or discipline. It is amazingly common how regularly we disappoint one another by dealing in untruths.
It was no different in Jesus’ day–and Jesus was concerned that his disciples would know that they were to live well above the level of conventional notions of honor and righteousness. In fact, Jesus encouraged that those who would enter the kingdom would have such a character as to possess surpassing righteousness in the area of truth-telling (Matt. 5:20).
So what does surpassing righteousness in Christian truth-telling sound like?
Righteousness admits the need to help others’ doubts
The first thing Jesus said was you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ (Matt. 5:33) Jesus’ words are not a quote, but they’re an excellent summary of a number of passages from the OT. Oaths were an accepted part of Jewish life in the OT and NT periods. Moreover, even God, wanting to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, … confirmed it with an oath (Heb. 6:17)
God’s intention was not that everything that was said needed to be augmented by oaths. Rather, he permitted oaths to comfort people because their confidence was so often and so easily shaken by untruths. Oaths were meant to be a comfort to doubt.
But righteousness is not just about verbal formulas
The comfort of oaths for the doubtful, however, came in Jesus’ day to be shrunk and twisted to such an extent by people that there developed a distinction between oaths that were binding and oaths that were breakable. This was no more than a license to lie and deceive.
Jesus’ response is very clear. This is not the way of disciples who are subjects of the heavenly kingdom.
Surpassing righteousness need no oaths
Jesus says, Do not swear at all…. (Matt. 5:34) Righteousness and honesty do not require oaths for emphasis.
The next thing that Jesus says is a reminder that we are always before a watchful God and this calls for truthfulness at all times. The forms of oaths are irrelevant. Look at how he explains. Mishnah Shebuoth allowed that swearing by heaven and earth were not binding. Jesus said, Do not swear … either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool…. (Matt. 5:34) To swear by the domain of God untruthfully is to slight him. Jesus continued, Do not swear … by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. (Matt. 5:35) The Jewish Tosephta Nedarim allowed that if you vowed by Jerusalem it was not binding but if you vowed toward Jerusalem it was. Jesus said, "Nonsense! No matter what your direction or orientation to Jerusalem, you are involving God in your oath and so taking his name lightly.
You could not avoid involving God even if you simply swore by your head!
Jesus said, And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. (Matt. 5:36) His point was that even this involved God because we do not have ultimate control over even the smallest things of our lives. The little hairs on my head are not listening to me–some of them are changing colour; some are growing in strange and exciting ways; others are moving to abandon me permanently!
Jesus simply says, "Don’t!"
Surpassing righteousness is unadorned and keeps its word
If it is righteousness to be serious about oaths; it’s surpassing righteousness when all speech deals in the unvarnished truth.
Jesus said, Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matt. 5:37) He’s for reality and truthfulness in the whole range of daily conversations. How can we claim to follow the Son who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6) if we deal in untruths? Surpassing righteousness keeps its word.
Jesus’ teaching opens up many areas for application. We should be more careful in our speech: not exaggerating, or using hyperbole, or superlatives to be dishonest, deceive, or emptily flatter people. We shouldn’t slant our stories or pad our resumes. We should keep our promises and our appointments. We should be rock solid in reliable speech to our spouses, our children, our neighbours, our boss, the judge, the government, and above all to God himself.
Surpassing righteousness in the follower of Jesus is demonstrated, among other ways, in unadorned, sturdy speech that has the ring and character of truth and reliability…just like the words of Jesus.
After all, that is the new nature of the subjects of the kingdom of heaven who are the children of the Great King. Truth-telling shows that we bear the family likeness!