Friday, November 21, 2008

A Sermon On Swearing Oaths

Swearing oaths isn’t really a popular topic today. You can find many books about divorce in the NT or about the relation between government and the Christian, yet Jesus speaks just as much (if not more!) about swearing oaths—especially in Matthew—as he does about these topics. Why don’t we speak on it? For one, it doesn’t really seem relevant. In the first century, and even in the sixteenth century, when Anabaptism began, most people would swear oaths continuously. Some common phrases throughout history are: “May God strike me if I do not…” or, “I swear before God that I will…” or, “May many curses come upon me if I do not…”. But, even so, this topic is not dead. Even though oath-making is rare in our society, the topic Jesus is speaking about is still significant for us and for our daily lives.

First, though, we need to know what Jesus was actually talking about. Let’s look at what he said about swearing oaths:
Read: Matthew 5:33-37—“ Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.' But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, 'Yes, yes ' or 'No, no'; anything beyond these is of evil.”

Matthew 23:16-22—"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.' You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.' You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.”

What is Jesus talking about?
There are a couple points I want to move quickly over. First of all, Jesus is specifically speaking about the oaths themselves, and how they are problematic. In Matthew 23, Jesus goes into detail that no matter what kind of oath you are making, you are making it before God. The conclusion from this is that every oath, no matter what specifically it is made to, is made before God. Secondly, Jesus says that we are powerless to determine whether we receive a curse on ourselves or not—that is up to God. With this, Jesus says, it is better to say no oaths at all—because they relate to God’s name and they are foolish to make.

But now we have a problem. You see, Paul made oaths. They aren’t as strong as the ones Jesus speaks to the Pharisees about, but Paul states that he is swearing before God that such and such is true. An example is in Romans 9—“I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart.” Again, this is not as strong as some other oaths, but he is swearing that something is true before Christ.. There are other examples of Paul doing this, and potentially even Jesus. So is Paul just disregarding the teaching of Jesus? I don’t think so.

Again, Paul is swearing that something is true—an oath to declare one’s truthfulness. Jesus is really speaking about something different. He is speaking about an oath about what one would do in the future—a promise, or a guarantee that something would be done in the future. In James, this is more clearly stated, “Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (4:13-16). James also repeats Jesus’ statement, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.” (5:12). So Jesus is specifically speaking to statements about the future—promises in specific.

And what is he saying about those promises? Let’s look at Matthew 5. He says, first of all, don’t use oaths to confirm a promise. Secondly, recognize that the future is in God’s hands, not ours—we have no control over the future. Third, if you make a promise, keep it. If you can’t keep it, just say no.

So what is the main point of what Jesus is saying? Keep your promises! Don’t promise to do something that you will not or cannot do. Don’t use other language to confuse what the promise is or to make it seem that you are making a promise that you really are not. Keep your language simple and do what you say. That’s it. Now, we can see that even if we don’t swear oaths, Jesus’ statement is very relavent to us today.

So let me take this out a bit and give a few applications for us from these texts.

First of all, let’s look at Jesus’ key phrase, “Let your yes be yes and your no, no”. There is something significant here that we often miss practically. We CAN say “no”. In fact, if we cannot do something, we MUST say no. Many of us have a hard time saying “no.” But, according to Jesus’ word, saying “no” is a discipline that we must develop. If we cannot do something, we must say “no” and just accept it. Yes, the person asking you to do something might get upset; they might feel that you have failed them. But you have not. You are refusing to make a promise that is a lie. If you had said “yes” and then not done it, you would have really failed them. But by saying “no” you have stated clearly, ahead of time, what you are and are not able to do.

And that brings up another point. If we are to have integrity in our promises, then we need to be self-aware enough to know what we can and cannot do. It is so easy to say, “Yes, I’ll do that,” when we don’t actually have the time, the energy, the ability, the know-how, or the desire to do it. If we are to follow Jesus’ command to have integrity in our promises, then we have to know what we can and will do. To say “yes” isn’t to say, “I want to do this.” It is to say, “I will do it.” Jesus told a parable about two sons, one who heard what his father wanted and said, “Yes, I’ll do it”, but he never did. The other replied to his father, “No, I won’t do it” and then he changed his mind and he did. Now, Jesus didn’t ask the question that most people would ask—which one was right? Which one was righteous? Rather, he asked a very leading question, “Which one did the will of his father?” Of course, the second one. Both were unrighteous in one way—they both broke their statements. But the second was more righteous because he did what his father asked him to. The first one had the desire, and he had the right response—he sounded submissive and righteous. But he was not. He had every good intention—but the significant thing is that he needed to do what he said he would do. My point is this, Don’t make a promise based on your intention. Rather, be realistic and make a promise based on what you can really do. Otherwise, say “no”. It is better to say no than to break your promise.

Also we need to remember James’ point—we don’t really know what will happen in the future. We can make a promise and then realize that we can’t fulfill it. So when we make a promise, let’s be careful in what we say. Let’s make allowances that the future is in God’s hands, and that anything can happen.
In areas outside of our normal responsibility, especially, let’s offer conditions on our statements. If I have time, if God allows me. This isn’t a loophole for the promise, but it makes our statement have more integrity.

At the same time, in our promises, let’s be clear about what we will and will not do. Oaths were made, many times, in order to complicate the promise, to get a loophole if nessesary. Let’s have our statements have integrity. We should keep our statements simple and clear, so that they can be clearly understood. Let’s not complicate it with a lot of speech, but try our best to be simple.

One other thing. Jesus said that anything but a simple promise made before God to be done—that anything beside that is evil, or from the evil one. This means that any promise we make and then break, we will be judged for that. Anytime we complicate a promise with language that makes it confusing, we will be judged for that. Jesus said, “I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." We need to remember this every time we are making a descision about whether to promise something or to say no.

1 comment:

Darrell said...

Excellent point. Getting a sermon ready on this subject--and finding yours most helpful.