Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Matthew 5:33-37, NIV (emphasis mine)
“And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.”
Matthew 5:33-37, The Message
What do you think of when you hear the word “oath?” The most common usage of the word these days is likely in reference to testifying under oath in a courtroom. But what does it mean? According to the Oxford Dictionary, an oath is “a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behavior.” It is similar to a vow and stronger than a promise.
When we look at the Hebrew scriptures (what we often refer to as the Old Testament), we see that honesty was held in high regard. Pastor John shared that their communities were built on three pillars: justice, truth, and peace. Oaths back then acted as a guarantee of one’s word. But they had become more than that, and the use of them had created a toxic climate for the people. Enter: Jesus.
As we have seen over the last several weeks, Jesus had a lot to say about the traditions and teachings that had become lists of laws for the people to keep. Each time that he has said the words “You have heard it said…” in the sermon on the mount, his “…but I say…” has been seemingly more demanding than the original. But as we look deeper into his words, we find a common thread:
It’s all about the heart.
The way of the kingdom, the way of love, will always take us farther than the limits of the law. We have discussed this at length during this series. This week’s subject does not deviate from that course.
Pastor John shared a lot of information in his message about the history of oaths and their severity in the community of the people of God. He shared that oaths are frivolous and evasive and that they add nothing to who we are–in fact, they diminish us and the person(s) we’re giving the oath to. He said, “Who we are strengthens what we say.” It’s our character, consistency, integrity that back up our word. Again, he took us back to the heart.
John encouraged us to look at our hearts and identify what’s inside; to be pure in heart–living lives of connectedness within, undivided, whole–so we can see God; and to then reflect the heart of Jesus–to understand him, look at him, see him and mirror his life to others.
Psalm 24:3-6 in The Passion Translation says this:
Who, then, ascends into the presence of the Lord? And who has the privilege of entering into God’s Holy Place? Those who are clean–whose works and ways are pure, whose hearts are true and sealed by the truth, those who never deceive, whose words are sure. They will receive the Lord’s blessing and righteousness given by the Savior-God. They will stand before God, for they seek the pleasure of God’s face, the God of Jacob. (emphasis mine)
Jesus is saying this same thing in the sermon on the mount. If truth lives within us, truth will come out of us, out of undivided hearts committed to Jesus, hearts that are becoming more and more like him. Pure, whole hearts, unclouded by the burden of being divided among many gods, can see God. And what we see and gaze at, what we take in, is what will be reflected out to others as the kingdom comes first to us and then through us. I love the way Psalm 24:7 calls to us:
So wake up, you living gateways! Lift up your heads, you ageless doors of destiny! Welcome the King of Glory, for he is about to come through you! (TPT, emphasis mine)
Throughout the sermon on the mount, Jesus unveils what his kingdom looks like, what it demands, and how we are to be--from the inside out–if we choose to follow him. Every bit of it comes back to our hearts, to who we are and how we love. I don’t want to get too far ahead here, but a little later in our series, we’ll hear Jesus say,
“In everything you do, be careful to treat others in the same way you’d want them to treat you…” (Matthew 7:12)
I want to be able to take others at their word. If someone tells me they love me, I don’t want them to have to add, “by the moon, and the stars, and the sky,” or any other frivolity to convince me that it’s true. I would like to be able to trust that the people in my life mean what they say, period. Yes or no. Full stop. That said, there are people in my life I can’t trust because they have proven that their lives–who they are from the inside out–don’t match their words. They are also those who use oath-like language to try to convince me that I can believe them. This is hard. It’s hurtful. And there’s nothing I can do about it. If they choose to be dishonest and deceiving with their words, that is their choice.
What I can do, though, is choose my way of being in the world. I can listen to Jesus–invite him to search me and know me and plumb the depths of my heart–and allow him to cultivate the kingdom within me as I look to him as my model.
Jesus didn’t make oaths. He didn’t exaggerate or embellish the truth. He simply told it. Wouldn’t it be a better world if those around us did the same? Isn’t that how we would like to be treated by others? If so, Jesus says, “Then do that. Be that way. Let your life be changed first, and treat them in the ways you’d like to be treated.” We cannot change others, but we can be willing to be changed. It all begins in our hearts–they are the “living gateways” for the kingdom to flow through into the world.
I want my heart to be “true and sealed by the truth.” I don’t want to deceive. I want my words to be sure. I want my yes to be yes, and my no to be no. I want those around me to know they can trust me because my life speaks louder than my words, because who I am strengthens what I say. This is my work to enter into with Jesus. He is the Master Gardener, the one who sows the seeds of truth in my heart and grows them up to bear fruit that is solid, honest, and good. I can’t produce that fruit on my own–none of us can. But we can all fix our eyes on Jesus, let our gaze linger on the beauty of who he is long enough to let the vision of him change us, and then reflect what we have seen out to a world in need of truth, beauty, and goodness.
Laura wrote above, and I want to reiterate Pastor John’s information that in Judaism, the three pillars on which a healthy community can be built are justice, truth, and peace. If one of those three is missing, the community suffers. This can be family community, church community, work community, national community, or global community. Based on what Jesus has been teaching, I believe he would say those pillars are foundational…period. Oaths weaken those pillars.
Laura did a beautiful job of expressing that our inner character is what determines whether or not our word is good, whether or not we are people of integrity, and whether or not we can be trusted because the fruit of our lives proves our character. Our word and our actions match.
I work with at-risk students in a public high school and I can’t tell you how many times a student will say to me about an assignment, “I swear that it’s almost done. I’m going to turn it in tonight.” I will follow up with something like, “Fabulous! I’ll check with your teacher in the morning to make sure they got it.” Sometimes students will go ahead and confess that they truthfully haven’t started the assignment and need help. That truthfulness gets us somewhere positive. Other times students will give me a thumbs up and not be concerned at all. When I follow through with the teacher the following day, I learn whether or not the student was truthful. If they got their work turned in, it’s kudos all the way, and I know that student does what he/she says. If they didn’t get the assignment in, the next time they tell me that their assignment is almost done, I ask to see it. If they don’t happen to have it available, I ask them why I should believe them this time? Then we talk about why character matters.
It does matter.
When we say “I guarantee what I’m saying is true because of this oath I’m making”, we basically say…you can’t really trust just me, so I’m going to add extra weight to this promise. That way you’ll know I’m truthful.
The Jewish people had developed quite an elaborate “oath” system by the time Jesus preached his sermon on the mount. They had binding oaths and non-binding oaths. A binding oath invoked the name of God and could not be broken. A non-binding oath could be broken (what?!!).
So, not only could an oath reflect the wishy-washy character of the one making it, it could also be a poor reflection on the character of God. There is an Old Testament story that has always bothered me; Pastor John’s sermon helped clear it up. In Judges 11 we learn about Jepthah who is getting ready to lead a charge against the Ammonites. In verses 30 and 31 we read:
Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Notice that the Lord did not ask Jephtah to make a vow–he did that to himself, but because he invoked the name of the Lord, it was a binding oath according to their tradition. And I’m sorry, but what a really poorly chosen vow to make…good grief!
So, Jephthah is successful in battle, he comes home in triumph and the first thing to come out of the door of his house is his daughter, his only child. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” (v. 35)
She agrees that he can’t break his vow to the Lord, asks for two months to visit her friends and mourn the fact that she’ll never marry, and after the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. (v. 39)
Jephthah made a careless vow and used the Lord’s name as part of it. He carried his vow through, but do we think more highly of Jephthah as a result? I don’t. There is also a danger in this type of vow because it could suggest that God somehow approved of this behavior–yet what could be further from the heart of God?
We must be so careful with our words! We must be so careful with our hearts. Jesus tells us that out of the overflow of our hearts our mouths speak. (Mt. 12:34) If we feel like we need to back up our words with oaths and other things, we need to check our hearts.
Jesus ends the oath section of the sermon of the mount by saying, let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. Many English translations say anything more comes from the evil one; however, in the Greek it is translated more often as just evil, or wicked.
Jesus isn’t condemning anyone in his sermon, but he is saying let’s get this figured out…if you can’t just say yes or no, it’s evil, it’s wicked.
Author Greg McKeown makes this point really clear. He writes “Remember that a clear no is more generous than a vague or non-commital yes. The medium yes or maybe is the worst. Stringing people along or delaying the inevitable decline is a thousand times worse than a polite but clear no on the front end. People know when they are getting a lukewarm placeholder. Further, they know when they are receiving wild, made-up excuses. We must stop doing this. We are fooling no one. It is actually better, easier, and more mature to say what you mean right out of the gate.”
That’s true, isn’t it? Haven’t we all experienced it–that non-commital stringing along where we hang in limbo and our relationships get awkward as a result? And I imagine most of us have done it to others at some point.
Being a person of integrity is brave and worthwhile. Letting our yes’s be yes, and our no’s be no creates stronger relationships; the kingdom of heaven is all about relationships. Let’s lean into Jesus, let’s let him reframe some things we’ve misunderstood about what it means to be his people, let’s let him make us “whole” which is what integrity means. Let’s seek kingdom justice, truth, and peace because our hearts are his and our character matters. Let’s get rid of frivoulous oaths and be people whose lives are oath enough to demonstrate that we are trustworthy people of our word, and people of The Word...Jesus Christ himself.