Notice also what is happening in this process in which the Scribes seek to negotiate the value of words with Jesus. They try to buttress their words with authority greater than their own character. The reason for this is because their character was contradictory or deceptive. They said one thing and then lived the other. They also thought that only a small portion of their speech was relevant to God—only those statements that invoked the name of God were true and binding. All other words could be dishonest, misleading or full of duplicity.
This is what the phrase “You have heard it said” refers to. Jesus confronts the scribal approach that devalued speech, turning language away from stewardship into gamesmanship. In his first gospel Jesus is interested in truth and constancy in speech.
Jesus lays down quite a different principle in this gospel sermon. What he says is quite clear. Jesus teaches us here that all our speech—every word—is spoken before God and lies under his scrutiny. Each word involves the reality of God in our lives. That is, by each spoken word those around us can know if God is really in our character. Our language betrays our heart. It is unavoidable. “For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Our language is the measure of our heart.
In effect, Jesus is saying that, so far from having to make “God a partner in any transaction, no man can keep God out of any transaction. God is already there. Heaven is the throne of God; earth is actually his footstool; Jerusalem is the city of God; a person’s head doesn’t belong to him apart from God; we can’t turn our own hair different color. God is involved in all of this and Ruler over all of this. There is nothing in the world which does not belong to God.”1 That includes our language. “Jesus relates every oath to God for God in some way stands behind everything. Therefore no oath (nor word) is trivial. . . all are solemn pledges to speak the truth.”
The Scribes tried to compartmentalize life and reduce parts of speech to being religious. Then all deception could break loose in the rest of their speech. Jesus speaks against this compartmentalization. He says ‘No! You cannot say parts of your words are none of God’s business and do not have to be judged by him.’ Jesus says throughout here that what God desires is the whole life—even the use of our speech. Our speech, thus, is not outside of the umbrella of God’s reign nor unrelated to our Lord’s gospel.
Jesus commands not merely to avoid murder but also to avoid anger in all of life. Don’t just avoid adultery, he teaches, but also stop lust in its tracks. He teaches his disciples not just to avoid perjury, but that all language is a stewardship and is to be exercised to the glory of God, not for human convention or deception. The law has a positive thrust as well.