The Power of a Promise
By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It was the winter of my 9th grade year; I had planned to spend that Friday night at the home of a buddy of mine. In fact, he has come to be a pretty notorious buddy in the years that have passed. Dean Anderson is actually Richard Dean Anderson, who became the star of a television series called “MacGuyver.” He got rich and I got ordained; what’s up with that? But on that Friday night in 1963, we were just a couple of kids about to get into trouble.
The Snyder’s Drug Store in Dean’s neighborhood had one clerk on duty, so when Dean put a Swiss Army Knife in his pocket, and I put a package of Whoppers candy in mine, we thought we were home free. We had no idea that the store manager was watching us the entire time. On the front sidewalk, he grabbed each of us by the nape of our necks and said “Let’s go in and call your parents, boys.”
Dean went first, and his mother was on the way. When he asked for my phone number, I lied. As fate would have it, the number he called went unanswered, and these were the days before voice mail. As we left the store, the manager made me promise that I would have my dad call him. “I swear to God, I’ll tell my dad when I get home.” I never did tell him; not even when I was 50 and he was 75. He would have grounded me and I would have had to send someone else here to preach! I have long since forgiven myself for trying to shoplift a 25 cent candy bar, but after all these years, the lie I told continues to haunt me. “I promise to have my dad call you, I swear to God, I’ll have my dad call you.”
In this Sermon on the Mount that is our focus for this academic year, we gain a glimpse of a teachable moment between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus isn’t telling them anything they haven’t already heard; ever since they were young Jewish boys, they had learned of the Laws of Moses that was supposed to guide their living. But now Jesus raises the bar higher:
• You have heard it said “You shall now kill” but I say to you, if you are angry, you have already killed.
• You have heard it said “You shall not commit adultery” but I say to you that lust equals adultery.
• You have heard it said “If you divorce your partner, do it kindly” but I say to you if you divorce your partner and marry another, you commit adultery.
In this litany, Jesus is not creating greater laws, he is creating greater character. The Jews were great ones for giving the impression that they were very religious people, but many of them merely went through the motions. For his followers, Jesus wanted more. He wanted kindness. He wanted honesty. Jesus wanted compassion and justice and pure motives. So when we get to this morning’s gospel lesson, we find Jesus abolishing a practice that the Jews had employed for generations:
• You have heard it said “You shall not swear falsely” but I say to you, do not swear at all.
Have you ever wondered how this idea of swearing, and taking oaths, and placing ones hand on the bible came to be? It came from the assumption that people lie – we frequently lie – and that we will not tell the truth unless we are compelled to do so. So when someone thinks we may be lying, they say “Do you swear to God?” “Do you swear on your mother’s grave?” “Do you…Cross your heart and hope to die if you should ever tell a lie?” Somehow, we figure that if someone is invoking their mother’s grave, or bargaining with their own life, they will certainly tell the truth.
And if we swear to God, and yet lie, it means that we are prostituting God’s name in order to get away with our lie. We are using God’s honor to deceive someone else. All along, we thought the Second Commandment meant that we weren’t supposed to spit out the name of the Lord when we cut ourselves shaving or hit our thumb with a hammer. But Luther had it right when he wrote in the Small Catechism:
“We are to fear and love God
so that we do not use his name superstitiously,
or use it to curse, to swear, to lie, or to deceive.”
So what is Jesus’ antidote for swearing on his name, or swearing on anyone else’s name? Just don’t do it. When you are asked for your answer, you simply say “yes” or “no.” And you tell the truth. Followers of the Savior do not need extra encouragement or more reasons to tell the truth. We don’t need legalistic rules, or the threat of perjury, or the weight of our mother’s graves to compel us to speak the truth. We only need to be reminded that it is our duty as followers of Jesus to be honest. Always honest.
For generations, the Quakers refused to follow our legal system’s requirement that witnesses in court must place their hand upon a bible and “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” They were criticized, and ridiculed and in some cases, incarcerated for their refusal to take an oath. But because they have gained the reputation of being honest people, they are, in some courts, no longer required to swear on the bible. They are known as truth-tellers.
Perhaps the old joke that we have told for generations is not just funny but also true. Lena says to her husband “Ole, why don’t you tell me you love me anymore?” And Ole replies “I told you fifty years ago that I loved you, and if that ever changes, I’ll let you know.” Even Ole was a truth-teller.
But Ole, today, would be in a great minority, for truth-telling has reached an all-time low. Politicians have turned “spinning the truth” into an art form. Corporate executives have fleeced stockholders with their fuzzy accounting systems. Government and educational institutions have affirmed the adage that there are three kinds of lies in this world: Lies, Damed Lies and Statistics. A national men’s organization arose in the 1990’s and had the audacity to call themselves “Promise Keepers.” But compared to our population at large, that’s exactly what they were.
In their book “The Day America Told the Truth” authors Patterson and Kim painted a startling picture of us. They said that:
• 91% of us lie regularly.
• When we tell the truth, it isn’t because lying is wrong, it’s because we’re afraid of being caught.
• Two out of three Americans believe that there is nothing wrong with lying.
• Only 31% of Americans believe that honesty is the best policy.
So when someone says that the car they have for sale has 28,000 miles on it, there’s only a 31% chance that she’s telling the truth. If Johnny swears that the dog really did eat his homework, 91% of the time he’s lying. And if Johnny’s dad comes into the classroom to talk about Johnny’s lie, chances are, he doesn’t see the problem. Men drool and dogs lie, and vice versa. That’s the truth of our culture.
So what are we going to do about it? I said at the outset that in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we gain a glimpse into a teachable moment between Jesus and his disciples. The fact it, we gain a glimpse into a teachable moment between Jesus and us. If it was important to tell the disciples in the 1st century, then it is certainly important to be heard by disciples in the 21st century. And the message is this: Be truth-tellers. Let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no.” Don’t tell half-truths, or “sanded-off truths” or little white lies. When you make a promise to someone, live up to that promise. When you give your word, live your word. And then, after 40 or 50 years, perhaps you will have gained the reputation of being a truth-teller. Then you can be honest about the candy bar you stole…the one that God has forgiven you for. Thanks be to God. Amen.
©2006 Steven Molin Used by permission.