This week we are hoping to get back to our weekly posting schedule. I’m particularly looking forward to our Gospel Wednesday reading through the Gospel According to Matthew. Today’s Complete the Thought (CTT) post will reflect back on a portion of the Lord’s sermon on the mount found in Matthew 5.
Matthew 5:33-37 (ESV) | Oaths
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
The passage should be familiar to most of us. As a father of 2 beautiful, wonderful, sinful little children this passage comes to mind time and time again. You see, my kids have already adopted the dubious habit of hyper-emphasizing one of their claims or sweetening the deal for one of their negotiations with each other or with their mom and me. The phrase “I promise” is wildly abused in our culture… and my kids have picked it up. I regularly have to remind my children, “you don’t have the power to guarantee such promises, don’t make them. This is a good lesson for our children, but for them to truly learn these lessons, we adults need to stop abusing promises ourselves.
Notice the second half of verse 37 just after the semicolon, anything more than this comes from evil. This really jumped out at me this weekend. Now, we know that lying is evil for the devil is the father of lies.
John 8:43-45 (ESV)
43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.
But there is more going on here than simply lying. Jesus is saying there is something inherently wrong with exceeding your ‘yes’ and ‘no’ by tacking on oaths (I promise, I swear, etc). Let’s look at some of the ways this holds true in our lives.
- When we start accepting oaths where a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ should be sufficient, we start to accept lying in the everyday things. It doesn’t happen in an instant, but when we allow our children to make oaths for things they shouldn’t be swearing to, then we unintentionally give them a buffer to lie or reconsider commitments that were made without the oath. That’s a problem. It devalues our word, even when we make good on our promises.
- When we offer oaths in trying to add weight to our verbal commitments, we are tacitly acknowledging that we’ve sinned before by bearing false witness and untruthful speech in the past. This is a problem on 2 levels, the first is that this tacit acknowledgement falls short of confession and repentance. The second is that we are now trying to buy trust and credibility on credit or on a loan. When our brother/sister asks us to do something, or refrain from something, they are asking us to help them in some way. By tacking on the oath, we are then asking them to place their trust in us, while on some level acknowledging that we haven’t earned such trust in the past though but we are not really confessing and repenting from those sins. Earlier in the sermon on the mount, when addressing murder of the heart, Jesus follows that up with a charge to be reconciled with our brothers even before offering our gifts to the Lord. Offering an oath to a brother to whom you’ve been unfaithful or untruthful before is not reconciliation, even if you manage to fulfill the oath. It’s an attempt to side-step confession and repentance, which often comes from a place of pride.
Matthew 5:21-26 (ESV) | Anger
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
- The other side of this is that as sinful beings, we knowingly add oaths to our lies to ensure manipulation of the situation and secure the unwarranted trust of our neighbor. This is evil… even with the so-called greatest of intentions or extenuating circumstances. Incidentally, the so-called “law of attraction” nonsense with speaking lies over ourselves, even invoking scriptures that don’t apply, fit into this category… be careful. But let us look at how Scripture characterizes Peter’s oaths of “no”… in a time of intensely extenuating circumstances that in no-way exonerate him.
Mark 14:66-72 (ESV) | Peter Denies Jesus
66 And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, 67 and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” 68 But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. 69 And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” 72 And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
Peter’s denial of Christ the first two times are grave, death-worthy sins on their own. Peter lied, and not only did he lie, his lie was a denial of the Messiah. Then he swore and invoked a curse upon himself (probably 2 different statements made, I don’t think this makes a blanket equation of oaths being equal to curses) to convince the crowd to accept his lie. Regardless of whatever emotional intelligence someone may try to bring into this equation, this is evil. It comes from a place of fear and unbelief. This is sin. Human emotion does not trump the Truth of God’s Word… ever. Peter broke down under the conviction of his sin… and he repented. He learned a hard lesson that night. Our Loving Savior, Jesus Christ extended grace and forgiveness and restored Peter later on (John 21:15-19).
James 5:7-12 (ESV) | Patience in Suffering
7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
Notice how James framed this, but above all… we need to dispense with verbal commitment buffers. As children of the Light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to treat our ‘yes’ or our ‘no’ as binding commitment. We need to put away all falsehood and coarse joking from our lips. And when we fail, and we will, we are to confess our sins to one another, repent, and ask for forgiveness from our brothers and sisters and from the Lord God. Don’t flirt with adding condemnation upon our sins… don’t add oaths where they do not belong.
And let us not be one-note about our communication. It is not our speech alone that makes the whole, but our speech in addition to our actions. In closing, let us look to a parable shared by Jesus shortly after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Matthew 21:28-32 (ESV) | The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
This is wonderful parable with a ton of Truth packed in here, but for today’s topic, notice the repentance was walked out, not merely spoken after-the-fact. And this son… did the will of his Father, though initially he dishonored the verbally Father. We are sinful creatures, indeed… but God’s Grace to convict to repentance is a beautiful thing… as is His mercy to forgive us of our sin.
Jude 24-25 (ESV) | Doxology
24 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
In Christ Jesus,