There have been a number of high profile cases of false witness in the past few years. From MPs wriggling out of a publicity storm after they have said something they later regret or even abuse they have issued at another, to police fitting someone up for political ends, to the solicitor fabricating claims against soldiers in conflict zones, giving a false account still shocks and alarms. The positive side of this is that, for all our cynicism, we still expect to be able to trust what someone says. That of course assumes that when someone gives an account they are able to recall what was said, or did or didn’t happen, accurately. And we know that people have a tendency to change the narrative as they recount it. Deep inside there is an edit button that has been pushed and it is hard to face a story that doesn’t show us in a completely favourable light.
I was talking about this with some colleagues the other day about how hard it can be for people to face up to and accept that they might have messed something up and may indeed be responsible for something with serious consequences. Whenever I have spoken with people who carry major amounts of guilt or know that they have been caught doing what they should not have done, there is often a tendency to mitigate their actions or even change a few details and it is a skilled person who can help them face what they would rather not face. None of us are exempt from this and if we are honest this is a glass house that none of us would be wise to start throwing stones around in. We need to feel safe to say what is dark about our own actions and what has resulted from them; a safe place where a new future can open up, even if we may have to live with the consequences as they continue. Bearing false witness is something we do far more frequently than just deliberately lying. We often bear false witness to ourselves, and so become delusional.
Jesus’ statement at the end of our gospel reading (Matthew 5:21=37) that rather than swearing oaths, the name of God should be so infused into our hearts that our ‘yes’ or ‘no’ should be sufficient. No further proof should be needed, not least for ourselves. The heart of integrity is what counts most, not just obeying the letter of the law. What is just, what is honest, what is truth-filled, what is life-giving and therefore a source of blessing; these are the questions which really count and they lie at the core of that gospel reading; the spirit of the law rather than the letter. And this passage follows on from where last week’s gospel (Matthew 5:13-20) ended with Jesus saying not one stroke of a pen of the law will pass away; that Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Righteousness is to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, meaning a higher standard is expected than even they achieved. And when we want to know how you can exceed the righteousness of those who aim to live the law to its ‘nth’ degree, Jesus sets it out with an exacting standard. Don’t just follow the letter, but take it further and follow the spirit. Let it fill your heart so deeply that it changes you profoundly.
So with that in mind, the depths of anger and murder, adultery and lusting, divorce and the double standards at work in how that operated take on a deeper tone. It is of course wrong to murder, but Jesus takes it much further to include “if looks could kill”. The seething in the heart, which does not cool, the humiliating words of abuse, captured by ‘you fool’, are brought within the scope of this commandment. If you have anger in your heart you are in a perilous state. And we can all feel angry when passions run high and what we see as being wrong has happened. The aim is for reconciliation and a putting right of what is wrong, rather than trying to rub out the one who commits it – and of course, as we know with how we bear false witness in the retelling of stories and event, that commission can have more than one side to it. Reconciliation rather than annihilation is the language of the rainbow after the flood in the story of Noah. Wiping out the offenders does not work, so we need a new plan, where redemption and restoration reign supreme.
The concept of adultery in the time of Jesus carried a profound double standard. The man committed adultery against the woman’s husband or fiancé, not against his own wife. So it damaged the other’s marriage not his own. It is one of those defences that may pass the Bill Clinton test, but I very much doubt passes the Hilary Clinton test. I can’t imagine when he had to explain what he had been up to with Monica Lewinski that Hilary saw the legal niceties, whatever her legal training. There may be a legal get out clause but it will still be a cold night on the sofa. The prohibition is extended to lusting and all the myriad ways in which we treat others as commodities for consumption rather than people of integrity and inherent worth. The heart carries some deep secrets, some dark secrets and there are whole industries deployed to appeal to them. Advertisers know this and exploit it. False and untrue concepts of what constitutes an acceptable body image can have a devastating effect on young minds and older ones, with the ever-pervasive obsession with youth and young image. It is another aspect of bearing false witness, because it is an untrue, unreal identity and an untrue set of expectations being placed on people.
Truth runs much deeper than just the words we say, though that matters enormously: let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’. Truth extends deep into the heart and is to so inform our being that it is embedded in our thoughts and the actions that flow. Justice, honouring and integrity are watchwords here. This notion is pegged onto anger and looks killing, adultery and looks thrilling, divorce and double standards abounding, and oaths and trust imbuing. We are to be true in our being not just the outward appearance.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th February 2017