Bonhoeffer :: Chapter 11 Integrity

As most of you know, we are continuing our journey through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship. Each Sunday our opening thoughts are inspired by, if not directly drawn from Bonhoeffer. For the last several chapters we have been moving through the sermon on the mount, looking at Jesus’ instructions to his disciples.

Again, remember the setting. Jesus has started his Galilean ministry, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom. He has performed miracles, healing the sick and casting out demons, making it clear through his teaching and his actions that something new and unprecedented is breaking into human history. Finally, he has called a small group of followers, the disciples, to follow him. Now, being surrounded by masses of people he climbs a hill, sits down, and looks at the disciples surrounding him. Jesus is telling them what it means for them to be his disciples.

Matt 5:33-37 33 "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' 34 But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35 nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.

Now first we must be clear about what Jesus is saying here. I have heard Christians argue against profanity by citing this verse. It may well be true that a Christians speech should not be profane but that is not what Jesus has in mind here. Jesus is talking about vowing, promising by ritual to perform, taking an oath.

Jesus is again asserting his authority over the Law. The Law said that it was wrong to swear falsely, and this seems fair enough to us. Jesus, however, is stepping over the Law to the higher righteousness he said is required of those who will follow him. Instead of making sure that we swear and then follow through, he is prohibiting taking oaths at all.

Now this is an unusual command. Jesus has already talked about settling our differences with others, about the evil of hating our brother, and has forbidden harboring lust in our minds. How is taking an oath connected to all of this? Why would Jesus care, anyway? Isn’t taking an oath essentially just making a promise?

I think, actually, that this command is of the same nature as the commands that have preceded it. Jesus is concerned with out purity, as we discussed last time. Here his aim is at our integrity. "Let your yes be yes and your no, no." Jesus forbids us, his disciples, from harboring anger at a brother while pretending all is right with God and man. He tells us that it is not enough to stay physically faithful, but that our minds also must be pure. Now he tells us it is not enough to confirm our truthfulness with a vow, but our truthfulness and integrity must be so complete that no vow is needed. Jesus is not telling us that we should not be truthful, he is telling us that our truthfulness should be so complete and total that it is beyond doubt. Taking a vow implies a lack of seriousness, an acceptance of untruth in normal conversation and casts doubt on our integrity under normal circumstances. Jesus call is to reject this double standard.

Having established the new standard of behavior for disciples Jesus spends a little time mocking (to my mind at least) the old standard of behavior. Why would you swear by heaven or earth or Jerusalem: they all belong to God and you cannot do a thing to affect them. Similarly, vowing on your head is ridiculous: you can’t change the color of the hair on your head by trying. Vows, Jesus is telling us, are essentially meaningless and only serve to give an appearance of unreliability.

So how do we keep this command of Jesus’? First we can literally refrain from swearing an oath. Now in our society it is no longer common to call on heaven to witness to the truth of everyday conversation. In fact, the only place I can think of that most of us might be called upon to swear is in a court of law. So how might we live out this principle of integrity in our lives?

Last time we defined purity as consisting of one thing, the quality of being pure, singular. In other words we do not embrace in our minds actions that we would publicly disavow. We are consistently holy. Integrity has some closely related meanings: to be upright or complete but also to be simple, to be undivided. Do you demonstrate integrity in your life? Let me give two examples for you to think about.

It is, of course, important to recognize the importance of truth telling. We believe this and probably most of you are careful in conversation to stay within the bounds of truth. Even our surrounding society looks upon blatant lying with a certain amount of disfavor. Our culture does, however, promote dishonesty in subtle ways. We are a culture that frequently rates image over reality, appearance over substance. Have you seen the commercials whose message is "Live beyond your means"? To popular culture an appearance of prosperity is more important than prosperity itself, to pretend to be happy is nearly as good as being happy, to give off an aura of style, coolness, suavity, is very important. This is, by and large, the whole rationale behind different brands. Commercials that rate a product’s effectiveness, cost, and so on are probably less common than commercials that imply "you are going to be really cool if you buy this car, wear this brand, eat at this restaurant". Do you pay attention to this dreck? Are you more concerned with your appearance than your substance? Do you buy a certain brand because it is popular? Equally as important, do you judge others based on their conformity to popular culture? Are you less inclined to talk to someone if they drive a beat up car or you notice that they aren’t wearing name brand clothes or that they listen to music that isn’t particularly popular?

We also can fail to demonstrate integrity by concealing who we are behind a façade. I am not arguing that you must tell everybody, all the time, exactly how your life is. Do you always answer "fine", however, when asked how you are? Even when life hurts? Perhaps you hide the dryness of your spiritual life behind a spiritual language; I know I do sometimes. There is a temptation, when among Christian brothers and sisters, to try to "measure up", to think that you must be the only one with failures and struggles.

Christ calls us to tell the truth, to demonstrate integrity in our lives, even in Church on a Sunday morning. Today and for this week, let us strive to live as disciples, demonstrating uprightness, completeness, simplicity. Anything more than this is from the evil one.