Did you watch Superman when you were younger? I’m not talking about the Christopher Reeve movies or any of the myriad cartoon versions, but the black and white live television version staring George Reeves, the real Superman. The close of every show had a picture of a waving American flag superimposed on a rotating globe with Superman off to the side striking an heroic pose while the announcer intones “Truth, Justice and the American way”. I loved it. That montage still makes a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.
But how committed are we to Truth and Justice? In Matthew 5:33-42 Jesus addresses these issues. He first points to the Law’s definition, or better yet, to the Lawyer’s definition of Truth and Justice. People then and now have been taught that if you make an oath, especially one in God’s name, you need to fulfill it. This leaves open the possibility that if you take no oath, or if you craft the oath in such a way that it leaves you an escape where you can appear to mean one thing while committing to something far less, then you are not bound.
Just so we are clear 1st Century Jewish society had no monopoly on tricky formulations or lawyerly usage. We do the same in our society all the time. Have you read a product warranty, or seen a political ad, or listened to an argument in a court room? Lets go one better. You are in a very serious and sensitive business situation, how carefully do you choose your words and how carefully must someone parse them to discover the truth of what you are saying? Perhaps you are in an argument with your spouse or better yet in the after argument part where apologies and promises are made. How narrow is your wording, how careful are your formulations? Go one better. You are making promises to yourself, you’ll run three miles every day, or quit eating sweets, or what ever. Is it every day except when its raining or when you feel bad or all sweets but your mother-in-laws chocolate coconut balls?
That’s the heart of what Jesus is saying, truth telling, honesty, is not about the words you use, its about what’s in your heart. Its not a matter of keeping your oaths, its about not using words as a weapon to confuse and snare other people.
We might be tempted to say that we live in especially troubling times when the notion of truth itself is under assault. People are asking if there is any truth at all or if questions of truth or falsehood are even relevant. But Jesus spoke in times where people, especially sophisticated, urbane people, were asking the same kinds of questions. Consider Jesus before Pilate. Jesus said to Pilate in John 18:37,”In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” To which Pilate replied, “What is truth?”
Pilate was a man so used to lying and being lied to, to manipulating and being manipulated that when he found himself in the presence of Truth, he could not recognize it. How about us?
Jesus also reminds his listeners what the lawyers have taught about Justice. Justice exists when the scales are balanced, when what you have lost and what the person who did you harm has lost are equal. But Jesus exhorts us not to seek what is our own, to open ourselves up to further harm not insist on the letter of the law and in so doing to seek the things of God.
If we are seeking what is our own, what rightfully belongs to us, how does this leave an opportunity to seek the Kingdom, to seek God’s provision? If we make our way in the world on that basis we can claim we did it our way, that we are self made men and women. Isn’t the nature of Kingdom Citizenship our being remade by God, not making ourselves? Isn’t the nature of Kingdom Citizenship to conform to the image of Jesus who “…being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” If Jesus did not seek what was his by right, why should those who are being made in his likeness?
Steve Zeisler writes,”One of the terrible things proliferating in the culture we live in is that everyone is a victim. And everyone’s victimhood requires that they be paid back for whatever hurt was done them who knows when, and that their sufferings are all to be attended to immediately; and whatever suffering anyone else feels is not worth the attention. There is a clamoring for rights and justice.”
And this is as true within the Church as without. But in contrast Jesus says,”Don’t be a victim. Don’t let them take your rights, give them away.” That’s what He did on the cross. He was in no sense a victim, neither the Sanhedrin or Pilate took His life, He gave it away for us, for those who hated Him. That is the standard of Justice in the Kingdom. What’s our standard?