Truth takes courage when you Realize that speaking it will Undo the pretty picture you are Trying to paint of yourself, Hoping not to take the blame. Deception is a trap but seems Easier, the best way to Cover up that mistake that Everyone makes, of course. So Promise that it was not you That slipped; swear that your Insulting comment was actually On target, or that you did Not sneak that dirty treat. Honesty does build trust, when Only truth is spoken, Never devious cover-ups Entailing fingers crossed So that you’re covered. Truth reveals integrity. “Yes” mean “yes,” “no” means “no.”
Jesus was very clear about how essential the quality of honesty is in Kingdom living. He said: “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one.” (Matt. 5:37 NET)
Why was he being so insistent on this kind of clarity in our speech (Matt. 5:33-37)? As usual, it was because the leaders, and their followers, had devised ways to appear to be following the Law that gave them a way to cover up their true choices, even swearing oaths using meticulously evasive wording so that they could deviate yet not be judged guilty of perjury or other forms of deceit.
Glenn and I have been watching the old television series, “Perry Mason,” noting the constant themes of greed, infidelity, and deceit that frame the plots. Perry, the lawyer who always defends the person unjustly accused of murder, is extremely sensitive to attempts by witnesses to evade answering truthfully. When he calls them back to the stand for deeper questioning they are reminded, “Remember that you are still under oath!” Those who share in the guilt, even remotely, fidget, trying to figure out how to avoid committing perjury but needing to cover up the truth. Taking the oath was a legal procedure, but it did not keep them from lying when that would implicate them.
In situations outside the courtroom this also happens frequently. All we have to do is read the news about what political figures are saying, even after they’ve been shown to be wrong. They paint their motives in a different color. A current example is Putin, saying that he is waging a war against Nazism in Ukraine. There are many many more such lies out there.
But we don’t have to go that far from home. Picture two kids fighting over who has the right to ride a certain bike. Andy pushes Bob away, and he falls, scraping his knee, blood dripping. He is crying, and an adult runs to the scene. Bob screams, “He pushed me down!” Andy quickly says, “No, I didn’t! He was trying to get on the bike and he just fell! I promise I didn’t push him!” He figures he will be believed – after all, he promised! His right hand is behind his back. Maybe he had learned from friends at school that if he crosses his fingers, he is protected: He hasn’t even lied.
Adults are so prone to such deceit that our nation now relies on videos as proof of what really happened, especially in a situation when police are involved, or someone is accused of a crime. Who is telling the truth? Self-protection matters far more than integrity to many people.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called out the Pharisees for constructing multiple ways to “keep the Law of Moses” in ways that would protect them from transgressing it. When it came to making vows, there were many examples in their Scriptures of people taking vows to perform certain duties. So it was not against Scripture’s teaching to make a vow, or swear an oath. And there were clear instructions about oath-taking:
If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath of binding obligation on himself, he must not break his word, but must do whatever he has promised (Num. 30:2 NET)
You must not swear falsely in my name, so that you do not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:12 NET)
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain,for the LORD will not hold guiltless anyone who takes his name in vain. (Exod. 20:7 NET)
It was clear that making a vow or swearing by God’s name was to be taken very seriously. So the Pharisees had shifted attention away from the integrity of the oath itself to the way the oath would be uttered:
“[They] developed elaborate rules for the taking of vows. They listed which formulae were permissible, and they added that only those formulae which included the divine name made the vow binding. One need not be so particular, they said, about keeping vows in which the divine name had not been used.”
Swearing by the name of a deity called that deity to be a witness to the truth and fulfillment of the oath. So it seemed safer to swear by something else in case you might break your promise and bring disrespect to God’s name, taking it “in vain.” So instead they swore by heaven or earth or Jerusalem. Jesus pointed out that all of those places belong to God, so they still implicate him. He referred to Scripture, to Isaiah 66:1 that declared that heaven is God’s throne and earth is his footstool.
What does this mean for us today? It is not that oath-taking in a court is wrong. Instead, this teaching shows that what is essential is being so trustworthy that what you say, anytime anywhere, is known to be true. No deception slides off your tongue, whether to protect yourself or to promise something you know you cannot fulfill. What you say always rings true!
For my mouth speaks truth,and my lips hate wickedness. (Prov. 8:7 NET)
But let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall into judgment. (Jas. 5:12b NET)
 John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 99–102.
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Second Edition. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014), 56–57.