Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’
In our church in Corby Glen there are some famous medieval wall paintings. One of those paintings depicts seven fashionably dressed men, each accompanied by a horned devil. These men and devils are arranged around a centre piece which is a depiction of the Pieta, the figure of Mary holding her dead Son after he was taken down from the cross. The point of this particular wall painting was to remind those who saw it of the dangers of swearing. A popular swear word of the 14th and 15th century was Zounds!, a contraction of the phrase: By Christ’s wounds. The whole montage being arranged around the Pieta was meant to remind people of the real meaning of their words when they swore.
Of course, there are other types of swearing. We swear to tell the truth in court. We swear that we are telling the truth when we are trying to persuade others of our veracity. We swear when we are angry or frustrated. The use of swearing is seen as a safety valve which helps us deal with the immediate impact of some worldly crisis. But, swearing, as we read today, is not the way in which Christ wants us to deal with the issues that arise in our daily lives.
As followers of Christ we are called to live a simple, honest and faithful life of love and service. We are called to shed all that stands in our way of honouring this call in our lives. As we live out the simple, honest and faithful life of a follower of Christ, we should also resist the temptation to dissemble, exaggerate and obfuscate. What we say, and how we live out our daily lives, should be a demonstration of the simple unvarnished truth that we receive from God. If we are able to live out this calling, then there should never be any doubt that when we say, ‘Yes’, we mean, ‘Yes’, and when we say, ‘No’, we mean ‘No’. No other affirmation or denial should be necessary.
Unfortunately, this Christian ideal is one that leaves us wanting on so many occasions. We do not speak the absolute truth: we do dissemble, we do exaggerate and we do obfuscate. We wrap up our lack of direct honesty in terms of ‘not hurting someone’s feelings’ or ‘not wanting to cause offence’. But, the truth is generally one of cowardice or self-interest. We do not tell the absolute truth because we may lose out in some way. This unwillingness to follow the course of direct honesty leads us to cover our shortcomings with supplementary ways of justifying and ‘proving’ our words. We swear in various ways and by various things to ‘prove’ we are telling the truth.
Today we are challenged to stop wasting our time and effort on justifying our dishonesty, whether we regard it to be trivial or serious, and to show our honest commitment to God by proving that we do not need to swear because we do commit ourselves to letting our ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and our ‘No’ be ‘No’. Then our discipleship can be all the more effective as people understand that our telling of the Good News is not just sincere, but the absolute truth.