It was great to be back in church last Sunday, after being snowed out the previous week. As the snow melts, everything is becoming a muddy, mushy mess, but that sunshine and warmth feel so good!
The lectionary is taking us through the Sermon on the Mount. It is not as much a checklist of how we should be living, but a picture of what the Kingdom looks like, which is why it often seems like an impossible, unreachable lifestyle when we read it. I believe it is meant to remind us how very much we need Christ’s righteousness and the help of the Holy Spirit, rather than striving on our own.
One interesting passage is found in verses 33 to 37, regarding “swearing and oath” or “making vows.” When I was reading this paragraph last week, while preparing my sermon, this segment struck me. You see, we “regular” Christians don’t swear by any means (can you see me smiling?), and vows are only at weddings, right?
The phrase that keeps running through my mind right now is from the movie Galaxy Quest: “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!” Great example of an oath, even if it is a Hollywood contrivance! We actually do make oaths from time to time. Consider, “by everything that I hold dear . . . “ (usually when we are complaining about someone who has hurt us or made us angry and telling what we are going to do about it). And I’ve heard this one, too: “As God is my witness . . . ” again, often spoken in anger and frustration. Why make oaths at all? Perhaps it makes us seem more reliable, more believable, and more dependable. It is the underscore of speech, emphasizing our intents and plans.
In the Old Testament Law, irreverent, flip oaths were forbidden, as was using the Lord’s name lightly or breaking vows you have made. And of course, when the Lord’s name was added to it, that vow became a debt to be paid to the Lord. As time moved on, distinctions developed that determined just how binding an oath really was. If it was sworn by Jerusalem, it was no big deal, but if it was sworn toward Jerusalem it was binding. Such arguments were widely discussed and a big deal at the time, as if how you swore was more important than the fact that you did make an oath.
Oaths were designed to encourage truthfulness. Consider, “By my mother’s grave, I swear I did not do it” (another well-worn movie phrase). When a person makes an oath on something important, something dear, or even something lasting, such as God, you feel you can depend on that person’s testimony. It is sure that the person will fulfill the promise. Officials take an oath of office, and when we are called to testify in court we take an oath of truthfulness, often on the Bible.
So why ban oaths? It seems that Jesus is not attacking oaths as much as attacking the use of them to make one’s self appear more upstanding, more truthful. Perhaps he was making an example of the light use of oaths, much as we use them in everyday conversation. Even in Jesus’ day, a person could make an oath but not use God’s name or make it “toward Jerusalem,” and it would be understood that this was a flippant use, not necessary a binding promise. The person was just spicing up the conversation. Yet, these are specifically the oaths Jesus was speaking of. Jesus was insisting that in the New Community, in the Kingdom, trust is to be the norm.
To Trust or Not to Trust, Is that the Question?
The purpose of an oath seems to be to provide confidence in the speaker, to lend an air of trustworthiness to what they say they have heard or will do. In court we swear we will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. While we still use oaths in official purposes, such as court, etc., that is outside the Church. Outside of the courtroom, oath-swearing, according to John Petty, “is for people who don’t trust each other, as if underlining our cheap words with a patina of piety might make them more believable. Oaths actually serve to underline doubt, not certainty.”
In philosophy, there is an argument called the “appeal to authority.” By quoting someone higher, more powerful, we become more believable. Oaths that bring God into the equation, then, are appealing to the highest authority. But what right do we have to bring God into any discussion outside of God’s Word? The Essenes (a group of people who lived in the desert and studied the scrolls) felt that if you could not be believed without appealing to God, you were already condemned.
In the kingdom of God, truthfulness, fidelity, and honesty are to be hallmarks of our interaction together. In the Old Testament, God’s people were permitted to make oaths to encourage truthfulness; however, the making of oaths became occasions for clever lies and deceit. Therefore, in God’s kingdom, where righteousness is the rule of the day, oaths are no longer necessary because truthfulness is where we “live.”
Instead of Oaths, What?
Jesus states that everything beyond “Yes” and “No” comes from the evil one. How does my emphasizing my words become evil?
1. “God, if you will . . . then I will.” Manipulating God and trading on a promise. We make vows to God usually when we are in a tight place. How many people have promised to stop drinking, or gossiping, or even being late if God will take away the sickness, or let the loose talk be hidden, or find us a convenient parking space? This type of vow makes God responsible for our own sinfulness, somehow inferring that if God does not keep up that side of the bargain, I don’t have to keep up mine. It becomes God’s fault that I am falling short. If you want to change, if you want to make a promise to God, then do it without condition or simply ask for God’s help.
2. “I swear to God, I’m going to . . .” or “I’ll never . . .” Bringing God into my tirade. This type of vow not only uses God’s name in vain, but it also ties God into the situation. Let me ask you, if you make this promise “by God,” and you are unable to fulfill it, what does that say about your God? And you have then broken trust with God, as well. Friends, we should live our lives so that we have no need to make oaths to be believed by someone else. If we must use God’s name to make us believable, something is wrong with the way we are living.
James approaches this by saying, “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:13-16).
As Jesus said, “anything beyond [yes or no] comes from the evil one.” Additionally, trust in God should be the basis for our words, remembering that our lives are not bordered by the promises and plans we make, but by the plan and will of God. If you feel the need to “appeal to authority” to underscore your honesty, remember these words:
“Being criticized is not a problem if you develop a positive way of dealing with it. Winston Churchill had the following words of Abe Lincoln framed on the wall of his office: ‘I do the very best I can, I mean to keep going. If the end brings me out all right, then what is said against me won’t matter. If I’m wrong, ten angels swearing I was right won’t make a difference.’ ” (Bits & Pieces, April 29, 1993, pp. 15-16. )
Mary Kay Glunt, Pastor
Ebenezer Presbyterian Church