The Good Life
| An Honest Life
Matthew 5: 33-37
Let me begin with a story from the great theologian and philosopher…Andy Griffith. How many of you are old enough to remember the Andy Griffith Show? The greatest television show of all-time in my opinion, but I realize I may be biased. Anyway, there’s an episode where Andy walks up on his son, Opie, who is trying to sell his bike to a friend. He’s talking about how the bike is like brand new. Andy says, “Now Opie, you told him how the back fender is about to fall off, right? Opie hadn’t mentioned that. Andy mentions some other things Opie didn’t point out and the other boy eventually walks off. Andy gently admonishes Opie to be “fair dealin,” and that it’s not appropriate to sell his bike knowing there are things wrong with it.
In this same episode Andy’s deputy Barnie decides to dabble in real estate. He has a deal going where one family buys another family’s home if that family buys Andy’s house. So this family comes to look at the Griffith’s home. Andy is really selling the house. He tells how he’s painted the kitchen recently, and kept everything in good condition. Then Opie says, “Paw, don’t forget to tell them about the sink that sometimes doesn’t work. And Paw, remember how the roof leaks sometimes. And Paw, don’t forget how the basement floods when it rains hard.” The couple left. All the deals fell through.
Andy takes his son aside and explains how things are different with houses. Bikes are one thing, houses are another. Opie says, “You mean kids should be honest but grownups don’t have to be?” Andy doesn’t have a good answer. But after reflection he decides there really shouldn’t be a difference. He keeps the house and in the end he finds that choosing honesty helped him find new satisfaction in life.
Even Jesus would say “amen” to that! After all Amen simply means true. Jesus said, “I am…THE TRUTH.” He came to be our source of truth. I wonder if he looked around at the world in his day and thought, “No wonder people struggle finding the good life. They have a hard time with truth.
How true is that for our world?
A seminary classmate of mine, Andy Kinsey, is pastor of Grace Methodist in Franklin, IN. Following the attack on the capitol he preached a sermon in which he referenced a book by a friend of his, Steve Long from Southern Methodist University, called Truth Telling in a Post-Truth World. He described a “post-truth society” this way: “As long as I can say something is untrue and get you to believe what I say, regardless of the evidence or lack thereof, I can act without a sense of shame or consequence of what I say.” (“Courage to Be Changed,” Jan. 8, 2020) In other words, we have become a society that struggles with truth.
Consider what this looks like in the field of contractual agreements. The NFL has what is called “non-guaranteed contracts.” Talk about an oxymoron! Non-guaranteed contracts. A study of players who signed 5 year contracts revealed that less 14% of those players are actually paid through the five years.
The US Chamber of Commerce reported in 2017 that commercial litigation on disputed agreements, cases where companies failed to produce work that was promised, cost around $306 billion. Just imagine the hit to our economy if we ever went back to the days of handshake agreements!
Recently I spoke with Judge John Baker in our church who retired this past year from the State Court of Appeals. He tells about taking a Continuing Legal Education requirement. It was on video, and several times during the 2 hour video numbers would flash on the screen for just a few seconds. You had to write those down, so that at the end of the class you could prove you watched the whole thing and didn’t cheat. He said, “Think of the irony there, judges having to prove they aren’t cheating!”
We have become a very untrusting culture, and for good reason. But how hard is it to live the good life if we are suspicious and doubting and reluctant to trust? How do we change that? Jesus says it starts with us.
In another of his antitheses Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said of 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…rather let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
When Jesus says “do not swear” he isn’t talking about cursing, but, rather, a practice in his day of making oaths. This was a time when most people made verbal agreements rather than signing contracts, something that could be easily abused. So to prove a person’s commitment and truthfulness they would swear oaths, and an oath was considered binding if you brought God into it. Its like our courts today when witnesses put a hand on the Bible and pledge to tell the truth, “So help me God.” Now, you’re under oath.
To get around this bit of religious legality, other sayings developed like pledging in the name of the temple, or the city, or the hairs of your head. I suppose it’s similar to some of our sayings, like, “cross my heart and hope to die,” or “I swear on a stack of Bibles.”
Jesus says “Don’t swear at all!” You don’t need to bring God into your affairs. You can’t keep God out of it. Just let your yes be yes and your no be no. Be a person of truth.
That sounds easy, doesn’t it? One of the top things people value in others is honesty. Yet, most people admit that complete honesty isn’t just hard, it’s nearly impossible. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found most people lie once or twice a day. Now the lies are typically not a big deal. “Do you think these clothes look good on me?” “Did you fold the laundry?” After all, if we are talking bicycles, that’s one thing. If we’re talking houses that’s another. The trouble is the distinction between the two can get blurry.
I remember when I was in my early 40’s I started having trouble reading the newspaper in the morning. I would complain that my eyes weren’t focusing real well, so my family decided to have a little fun with me at Christmas. They bought me reading glasses. I opened them and everyone had a good laugh. Dad’s getting older. But then I tried them on. That was my favorite gift! I could see. I didn’t realize how much I had gotten used to blurriness.
What Jesus calls for here sounds so simple and easy. Let your yes be yes and your no be no, yet to practice it is to discover the amount of blurriness we have gotten used to, and even more, it means seeing some reasons why truth is hard to practice.
I want to look at two types of oaths people made in Jesus’ day and consider what they say for us and what it means to practice being people of truth, then close with a word for when truth and trust has been broken.
The first type of oaths was known as Assertive Oaths. These were made when someone was accused of something and that person asserted innocence. They might say, In God’s name I didn’t do that!” “For heaven’s sake I didn’t say that.” Now why would anyone lie in such a situation?
Sometimes its because of Fear of Punishment. If we tell the truth we are going to pay consequences. It’s going to cost us. We lie because we fear what will happen to us.
When Lance Armstrong came clean about using performance enhancing drugs, he said in an interview with Oprah that there was a moment he wished he could have back. You expect him to say it was the first time he used these drugs, but it’s not. He goes back to an appearance before the US Anti-Doping Agency. They gave him a chance to come clean. He lied because he feared the loss it would mean, yet his continued lies cost him so much more. He wished he could have gone back to that moment and come clean. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/cycling/2013/01/17/lance-armstrong-oprah-winfrey-confession/1843641/)
Sometimes we lie because we believe we can’t bear the loss that truth will mean. We believe the myth that everything we have is of our own making and that God won’t take care of us and provide for us. We don’t realize how much that fear has a hold of us until we hit a moment of truth. But if we keep fresh with a trust that God will take care of me, then we don’t have to fear truth.
Another reason we lie and make assertive oaths is because of Fear of Rejection. If we admit the truth there’s a chance someone won’t respect us anymore, they will reject us, we won’t be loved. Behind this lie is the myth that I have to be good enough to be loved. If people knew the real me they wouldn’t love me. They’d reject me. I have to lie to be loved.
In Acts Chapter 5 is the story about this couple named Ananias and Sapphira who sold property and brought their gift to the Apostles. They lied. They said their gift was the entire proceed from the sale, when in reality it was just a portion. Now why did they lie? No one said they had to bring all the proceeds. There was no requirement. Their gift would have been accepted. Maybe they felt they felt their gift wasn’t enough and they wanted to appear like this was all they could afford. Maybe they were trying to impress the apostles. But behind the lie was this idea that their approval, their esteem, depended on what they did.
Are either of these ever true of you? Fear of punishment? Fear of rejection? What assertive oaths point out is that Sometimes we lie because we’ve believed a lie. We’ve believed that God can’t really look after us, or that our acceptance is up to us. And the truth we need to tell ourselves is God will take care of me. God will look after me. And God never stops loving me. My acceptance is not based on what I do.
In a national spelling bee in Washington, DC an eleven year old girl from South Carolina named Rosalie Elliott was asked to spell the word avowal. Well, in her southern accent judges couldn’t tell if she said e or a for the next to last letter? Judges couldn’t decide, even after recording playbacks of her answer. Finally the chief judge asked the only person who say for sure, young Rosalie. Well, by now she knew the correct answer was a. Of course that’s what she’s going to say. She said, “I misspelled it.” And was embarrassed she missed such an easy word and walked from the stage. But as she did the audience rose in applause for her. She learned that rather than losing something, rather than being rejected, truth actually gave her those things.
Now the other kind of oath popular in Jesus’ day was Promissory Oaths. These were oaths made regarding a person’s intentions. Jesus probably heard people make oaths like this all the time. “I swear I will get the job done. I swear I will follow through.”
A few years ago we had this kid who did work for us at our house. I call him a kid but he was actually married and had a child. He was likable fellow. He was respectful. Always called me Mr. Fuquay. He would promise when he would show up to do work, but never seemed to make it at the time he said. Days and sometimes weeks would go by. I’d call him and there was always an elaborate excuse, the kind you could never hold against him—his wife’s car caught fire one time, his child had to be taken to the hospital another, his mother-in-law was about to die. After a while I became convinced this was either the unluckiest guy I’ve ever known, or he’s hedging on the truth. I came to find it that it was often the latter.
But what else I came to understand is that he wasn’t intentionally misleading me. He wasn’t a bad person. He always wanted to do what he could. His problem was a desire to please. He would overcommit himself. He struggled to balance his schedule. His desire to do all he could to please people meant that he often let them down.
The fear behind this lie is Fear of Letting People Down. Is that ever true of you? Because you don’t ever want to let anyone down, you promise just about anything. In fact, you have no problem with the yes, yes part of Jesus command. You want to say yes to everyone because you want to please people. The hard part is ever saying no, but what happens is you overcommit, you wear yourself out. You can end up doing the very thing you tried to avoid and that’s let others down.
What Promissory oaths point out is that Sometimes We Lie Because We’ve Lied to Ourselves. We have believed that others’ happiness is up to us. And the truth we have to replace that lie with is this: God is in charge. God looks after others. That’s what people need in order to find peace and happiness in life. We can’t be responsible for what only God can give. Sometimes we lie to ourselves without realizing it because we feel its up to us to make others happy.
Have any of these fears ever affected you? The fear of punishment? The fear of rejection? The fear of not letting others down? They can be the cause of our own lies. Many times we lie not because we are trying to purposely deceive someone, it’s because we’re afraid. And we have to replace those lies with the truths of God. God will look after me. God won’t stop loving me. And God is in charge.
So let’s close with a word of promise when we break trust. What do we do when we have lied, to others, to God, and to ourselves?
First, we confess it. Admit that we haven’t been honest. We’ve been afraid and we want to replace fear with God’s promise to us. We confess to those we have unintentionally hurt. We confess to God.
Second, we accept God’s forgiveness. Forget feeling forgiven. Forget feeling that you don’t deserve it. Forgiveness is a gift. How would you feel if you took a gift to someone and they said, “Oh I can’t accept that yet. Wait until I have earned it and then I’ll open it.” How would that feel? God offers his forgiveness as a gift that we need.
Listen to this promise from 1 John 1:8-9: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
Last, choose freedom. That’s what truth provides. Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” That’s what God wants for us, to be free, free of fear, free of sin, free of anything that can separate us from God and each other. Choosing honesty, truth, we discover what Andy Griffith did, that the life we have is really good.