The story is told of a man who purchased a KFC meal for himself and the young lady with him. The employee that served him had been tasked to take the cash from the previous day’s sales to the bank. He had hidden the cash inside an empty takeout box. While serving the customer, he mistakenly gave him the box of cash instead of his order.
The man drove off with the cash. When he reached his destination and opened the box, he realised the error. He immediately drove back to the franchise to return the money. The thankful manager applauded the man’s integrity and asked him to wait while he fetched a camera. He wanted to take a photo of the young couple to share the story on social media. The man quickly denied the request. When the manager probed, he replied, “You see, I’m married, and the woman I’m with is not my wife.”
Now, that story illustrates a principle so perfectly that I am almost certain it’s apocryphal. Nevertheless, you get the idea—and the point is made. Honesty and integrity are not always the same thing. It’s good and well to be honest in one area, but integrity is a way of life. And it is to such a way of life that Jesus calls his followers in Matthew 5:33–37.
As Jesus continued to offer examples of surpassing righteousness, he turned to the matter of oaths. The religious leaders had combined a number of Old Testament texts (Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2–4; Ecclesiastes 5:1–7; etc.) to reach a particular teaching about oaths: “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” The key phrase is “to the Lord,” because the same religious leaders had created all sorts of loopholes in oath-keeping.
For example, one was not bound to keep oaths made “by heaven,” “by earth,” “by Jerusalem,” or “by your head” because, technically, these oaths were not made “to the Lord.” In common parlance, an oath taken on the Bible might be considered binding, but an oath taken on your mother’s grave was less so. Jesus responded by pointing out that heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and your head are not disconnected from God. He then made his point clearly: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
Jesus’ point was that, for citizens of his kingdom, there should be no loopholes. Christians should be people of integrity, whose word is their bond. Christians don’t lie, deceive, or exaggerate in order to manipulate people. They are people of sincere integrity. They are people of truth, because their God is a God of truth. They don’t lie because their God does not lie.
The question for Jesus’ hearers (and readers) is, am I a person of integrity? Can people count on the truth of my words?
Dishonesty, more often than not, is a mechanism by which we manipulate people. Perhaps you are a student turning in a late assignment because you simply didn’t prioritise your time. Are you truthful about the reason why you are late? Or do you create some emotional backstory to explain why you couldn’t finish in time, hoping that the lecturer will feel sorry for you and not penalise you?
Perhaps your leave days have been exhausted but you really want to take the day off to go to the cricket or catch the early screening of that movie you’ve been waiting for. Are you honest in applying for unpaid leave or do you apply for available sick leave when you know you’re perfectly healthy?
Do you do what you say you will do? Do you show up where you promise you will show up? Do you deliver on the services you promise to offer? Jesus was not so much outlawing oath-taking as he was saying that, for citizens of his kingdom, there is no need to take oaths. When Christians speak, they honour their word, whether or not they are bound by an oath.
As you reflect on this text today, be prepared to repent of your lack of integrity and of your tendency to look for loopholes and ask God for the grace to be a person of sincere integrity, reflecting the character of the God you serve.