Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,
On the surface, Jesus’ little teaching on oaths doesn’t seem to be that terribly relevant. Especially not after dealing with lust and adultery.
Oaths are something from a bygone era. You could go your whole life without officially swearing a formal oath.
But after reading and reflecting on this passage this week, it strikes me that Christ’s word to us today is an apt word, an essential word. Especially in our current climate of verbal manipulation and distrust.
You’ve heard that it was said, says Jesus, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’
Oaths were a big part of Israel’s life together. They didn’t have paper contracts or ball-point pens back then, so they couldn’t sign on the dotted line. All they could do was give their word; and make an oath to fortify their word.
Oaths were often used to back land agreements and important business contracts. “As surely as the Lord lives” I will respect this boundary line. “With God as my witness,” I will pay you back in full.
Bringing God’s name into the situation added weight to the agreement. And it was a big deal. I mean, when an Israelite person brought God into the mix, they believed that God would deal with them severely should they not keep their word.
So oath making was part of the culture. And since it had become part of the culture, Moses put a few boundaries around the practice. For instance:
“When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” (Numbers 30:2)
“If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin.” (Deuteronomy 23:21)
“Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:12)
Essentially, oath-making was an attempt to preserve trust in the community and prevent the communal breakdown that can happen through lies, and broken promises. God allowed this practice to take place, so long as the parties involved actually kept their word. Otherwise, they’d be misusing the name of the Lord, their God.
In Jesus’ day, however the practice of oath giving was getting out of hand. And instead of being used to fortify the truth, oaths were being sworn to blur the truth. The Pharisees, it seems, had became quite strict about the Oath Formula. So, instead of swearing on God’s name, they’d swear upon heaven. This, they thought, avoided using God’s name in vain. But, then that also afforded them an out, should they happen to break their oath. “What, I didn’t swear on God’s name, I swore on heaven’s name.”
So the practice was being manipulated. Jesus saw this happening and he shook his head. “You hypocrites.”
The point of this has nothing to do with the proper formula. The point is to tell the truth and be people who keep your word. That’s the creational intent behind the practice.
And so, Jesus just says “no” to Oaths.
You have heard that it was said…, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Jesus is simply clarifying God’s original design for us, here. God wants us to be people characterized by integrity. Promise makers. Promise keepers.
Like divorce, the practice of swearing oaths was never commanded by God. It was permitted by God. And it was permitted because we live in a world filled with trickery and deceit. But there’s no need swear oaths in a community that forsakes lies and cherishes integral living.
My wife and I read a lot of books to our children. One of our favourites is Horton Hatches an Egg—by Dr. Zeuss. (Keep slide up till I’m done talking about Horton)
Horton is an elephant who lives in the jungle. He’s a little naive, but there’s no guile in Horton. He’s solid as a rock.
And one day, while walking through the forest, Horton stumbles upon Mayzie, a lazy bird. Mayzie is sitting on her egg. But she doesn’t want to be there. “She’s tired and she’s sore and she has kinks in her legs.” Mayzie wants a vacation from this Egg sitting business. So, she asks Horton to sit on her egg and give here a break.
Horton doesn’t see how this is going to work. “This doesn’t make sense,” he says, “your egg is so small and I’m so immense.”
But Mayzie insists. “Please”, said the bird, “I won’t be gone long, I give you my word.”
“Very well,” says Horton. “You want a vacation, go fly off and take it, I’ll sit on your egg and try not to break it.”
So lazy Mayzie flies off and Horton climbs up onto her nest.
Time passes. But lazy Mayzie doesn’t return. And so Horton sits and he sits. Summer turns to winter. Horton sits through ice storms and snow storms. All the animals in the jungle make fun of him, but still Horton won’t leave his post.
Eventually, Hunters find Horton sitting on the Egg. They take aim at Horton. Horton cridges, but he doesn’t run away.
When the hunters realize that Horton is sitting on a egg, they get an idea. “This Elephant is funny,” they say, “let’s capture him, bring him home, and sell him for money.”
So, Horton is dragged through the jungle, and he’s put on a boat. That boat sails across the ocean and lands in New York. But even then, Horton doesn’t budge.
Why? Why doesn’t the dumb Elephant just leave the nest. Why doesn’t he say: “this egg is not my responsibility.” Well, Horton won’t leave, because he told Mayzie bird, that he would sit on her egg. And, says Horton, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant, and an elephant’s faithful 100 percent.”
Mayzie bird swore she would return. “I won’t be gone long. I give you my word.” But really, her oath was just leverage, verbal manipulation. She wasn’t planning on returning. She was just trying to dupe Horton into doing her job.
But Horton said “yes”. And he meant what he said and he said what he meant.
Something like that is what Jesus means, when he says: Let your “yes” be “yes”, and your “no” be “no”.
Don’t swear upon anything. Simply speak the plain truth, hold to the plain truth, and carry out the plain truth.
Truthful speech. Man. So much relies on it. Words facilitate our relationships and create community.
My marriage is held together by the words I spoke to Brittney on August 25th, 2007.
Our country is held together by the agreed upon words in our constitution.
Our Church is held together by the promises that God has made to us and the promises we have made to him and each other.
And when we live into our words, and back up our words with with faithful action, trust is formed, and community is built.
But the opposite happens, when words are used to deceive.
Its not a surprise, that the scriptures call Satan: “The Father of lies”. For its through deceit and verbal manipulation that Satan does his best work.
We see this in the beginning, in the garden. The serpent was so crafty. He approached Eve and asked her: “Did God really say that you couldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?”
The answer to this question is obviously, “no”. God didn’t say that. God said that the man and woman could eat from all the trees. All except one. But the serpent is not interested in accuracy. He wants the couple to question God’s word. Furthermore, he wants to get the man and the woman to think that God is being stingy with them.
“Oh, you will certainly not die,” the serpent continues. “God is holding out on you. For he knows that if you eat from that tree, you’ll become like him, knowing good and evil.”
The devil is a powerful being, but he can never force our hand. Rather, he sows lies, and half-truths. He’s a spin Doctor. A creator of fake news. When you’re tempted to sin, he gives you reasons why its not such a big deal.
And when you’re feeling exposed, ashamed, the devil will feed your stories, excuses. He’ll help you defend yourself so that the truth can stay underground, and you self-image can be propped up.
I don’t know about you, but I have an uncanny capacity to be articulate when I’m trying to keep the truth under-wraps.
Its no wonder that Jesus wants his followers to speak the truth, and do so plainly, with minimal verbiage. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything else comes from the evil one.
Swearing an oath can sometimes be used to fortify or protect the truth. But everyone also knows that oath swearing can also be used to evade the truth or to get an upper hand in an argument.
Its a trump card, really: “I swear to God. I’m telling the truth.” “You have to believe me. I swear on my mother’s grave. I’m telling the whole truth.”
This past week I listened to a Ted Talk on lies and deception. The speaker is an expert in spotting lies. And she said that Liars often use strong language in order to try to cover up their lies.
Bullies follow a similar pattern, when they are trying to get their own way.
After a while, no one listens to the person who is filled with oaths, but lacking in character.
And its easy to point the finger at other people. But look at your own self first. Do you ever listen to yourself talk. How often do you fudge a story? Do you notice how skilled you are at defending yourself when something you’ve done wrong has been exposes or you find yourself caught in a lie?
This past week, someone asked me about my spiritual life, and what I do to nurture my relationship with God. There’s two different ways answer that question. There’s the simple way, that makes me look moderately spiritual. And then there’s the more elaborate answer, that is mostly truthful, but stretched around the edges. But in that version, I come out looking a lot better.
Jesus says. Tell the truth and tell is plainly. No stretch. No spin. Anything beyond the plain truth takes you into Satan’s territory.
If you want to know how serious Jesus is about the plain truth, all you have to do is look at Acts 5 and the story of Ananias and Sapphira.
Ananias and Sapphira sold a field, and then they brought the proceeds to the Apostle’s feet. They said that they had brought it all, when really, they had brought most and kept a portion for themselves. Just a little lie. Insignificant in the grand scheme of things, right?
But the Spirit of truth would have none of Satan’s handiwork in the newly formed community of Jesus. It was a little lie that derailed the first creation. God won’t let a little lie derail the new creation. And Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead on the spot.
Mean what you say. Say what you mean. Follow through on your word. May your speech be a reflection of your character. Let your character speak for itself.
Of course, there are times when the society we live in will require us to swear oaths. If you’ve ever taken the stand, for instance, you’ve had to swear an oath. Christians have debated what Jesus would think of this. Some make that case that we shouldn’t ever swear an oath, not even when the government requires it.
I don’t think Jesus is calling us to abandon all formal oath taking in this teaching. What he’s calling us to, is to be a people who don’t have to swear oaths in order to be believed.
And in a world of fake news, fine print, corruption, and trickery, we would really be a spark of light, and a bit of flavour, wouldn’t we, if we could live in such a way that our yes meant yes, and our no meant no.
Another reason integrity is so important to God, is because God is filled with integrity. He gives his word, and he keeps his word. And his word accomplishes what it was designed to accomplish.
God promised Adam and Eve that an offspring of Eve would crush the serpent’s head. God crushed Satan’s grasp on the world through the death and resurrection of his son.
God promised Abraham that one from his family would be a blessing to the whole world. And here we gentiles sit today, a long way from the promised land, but nevertheless the recipients of God’s mercy shown to us through a descendant of Abraham.
And God promised King David that one from his family would rule on the throne forever. Well after his resurrection, Jesus, the son of David, ascended to heaven and now he sits at the right hand of God.
And all of God’s promises, have found their yes and amen in Jesus Christ. Our faith, hangs on the word made flesh.
And Jesus has made promises to us too. I will not leave you as Orphans. But I will send the Spirit of Truth to live with you. I will always be with you to the end. Behold, I am making all things new.
Jesus meant what he said and he said what he meant.
And we can live with the certainty of his promises today, as we seek to reflect his trustworthiness in the way we speak and live.