Sunday’s message will look at the Sermon on the Mount text about avoiding oaths and telling the truth. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’;” Jesus said, “anything more than this comes from evil.”
Truth telling sometimes gets complicated in a complicated world. Or so we think. What about the white lies that lubricate our social lives – “You look great in that dress” – or the strategic lies meant to save lives – “There are no Jews hiding in my attic”?
There are truthful ways that navigate the safe waters between brutal honesty and white lie deception. There is evil that does not deserve truth, though we must be cautious in our judgments. The Gestapo may not deserve truth, but we may be required to speak truth to a cruel boss or manipulative family member, even when the cost of doing so is high. We’ll talk more about truth-telling and Jesus’ Kingdom righteousness demands on Sunday.
But most of the time – and Jesus’ speaks to our most of the time lives as well as our extraordinary time lives – truth telling or not comes down to a matter of convenience. Truth sometimes is so very inconvenient. Why tell the truth when a (little) lie makes it so much easier to get by?
Last week the New York Times reported on a recent study of college grade inflation. It turns out that what we suspected to be true is in fact very true. What started as a convenient and smallish white lie has become a grand deception of self and others. Rather than telling the truth about an altogether ordinary term paper we found it more convenient and less painful to say, “It was pretty good.” And after a while our slightly fudged “pretty good” became a truth-mocking “really good, downright excellent.”
We’ve made the ordinary extraordinary and the extraordinary ordinary.
A couple of generations ago, an average college student could be expected to be judged as being, well, average. 35% of all grades were a wonderfully ordinary C. A’s were coveted and hard to come by. Ordinarily, only 15% of all academic work – term papers, finals and lab reports – were judged to be extraordinary. About the same number, 15%, were subject to the hard truth that the work they represented was just not adequate, less than average.
As you can see, in our time we’ve pretty much convinced ourselves that ordinary is not normally acceptable. The A and the C have more than traded places. A C grade which once meant average, normal, ordinarily expected, has become rare. And the prized A has become as common place as a gold-plated plastic trophy at a kids’ soccer tournament.
It may be, of course, that, as in Lake Woebegone where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” we’re simply the most remarkable generation ever to live. Or it may be that the little white lie of “pretty good” has become the grand deception that “I am someone special – I deserve the best, all the time, no matter what.”
We have every reason to believe that those who heard the Sermon on the Mount the first time it was preached were pretty ordinary people; fishermen and carpenters, herders of sheep and weavers of cloth, tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus told them that in the coming – and already here – Kingdom the truth was to be the norm. “Let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
The Apostle Paul said, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Romans 12:3)
Sober self-judgment demands that the truth be told to self and others. I am not a 4.0. I am not special; I am ordinary. And in need of an extraordinary savior. The truth of the gospel is that the Word became flesh and dwelt in our ordinary world where all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24). Now that is a truth I can live by.