Dear Sisters and Brothers,
I want to assure folks that these letters I’m sending out are an attempt to communicate the Gospel in an in-depth way. I am the one who is writing them, but they are an attempt to share a description of those parts of Christian belief that have been around a very long time. Instead of coming up with new ideas, I am trying to find new ways to share very old and accepted ideas. So, if I write something that bothers or confuses you, write to me or call me up. I will double-check to see if I said something in error, and I will explain what the “old idea” is. When you actually dig into the Bible, you find that it challenges your assumptions day by day. Instead of avoiding these challenges, I think we grow by wrestling with them. To keep myself on the right track, I have been sharing these letters with clergy people of different Christian traditions. I’m sure I will hear about it if I start preaching a sketchy version of Christian belief.
I have been writing these daily messages for 18 weeks now. I hope you find them helpful.
In today’s text from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says some things about oaths and promises that tend to surprise Christians. This passage often goes overlooked.
“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.”
We get a little confused in our language sometimes. The Bible speaks against crude language in a few places (like Ephesians 5:4), but we are mostly encouraged to speak the truth and to avoid insulting or disparaging others. Here, we are told not to swear. This is where our language gets a little confused; the rule against “swearing” is actually against swearing an oath.
In biblical times, if a person was making a promise, they would search for words that would convince you of their sincerity. An oath could take the form of a conditional curse, like “If I fail you, may all my hair fall out” or “If I fail you may my goat stop giving milk.” An oath could also be something more nebulous, like “on my honor as a gentleman” meaning that they were putting their reputation at risk.
More often, oaths were like collateral for a loan. As you might ask someone to cosign on a loan, you are saying that if you fail, here is the person who will pay my debt. So, people would say things like, “I swear to you by my mother and all my brothers;” I won’t fail you because it would bring shame and expense to my family. We see the same thing today in bank loans and bail bonds.
The strongest oaths would bring God into the picture. There were curses, like “May God reject me if I fail you.” And there were outright statements as if God would guarantee your behavior, like “by God, I will do it.” You might notice that this kind of oath is like we find in courtrooms where witnesses are sworn in with their hand on a Bible. This is to assure that the person speaking the truth because they will fear God’s punishment for bearing false witness in his name. The idea is that if you fail to speak the truth, you will be hurting God’s reputation.
This is why Quakers (Friends), Mennonites (Amish and less conservative) refuse to swear on the Bible or take oaths. Following this teaching of Jesus, they believe that taking an oath on the Bible or in God’s name is a breaking of God’s law. Specifically, they believe that using God in an oath is “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” To say “so help me, God” or “by God” you are implying that God is on your side. It is seen as the ultimate form of vanity.
Most Christian groups do not emphasize this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, because it makes Christians seem untrustworthy in the eyes of human law, but we should not ignore it. Jesus clearly says that “yes” and “no” are enough. He is implying that promises are not as trustworthy as a reputation for honesty and dependability. Any kind of verbal “collateral” is just a sign of distrust. This goes back to an idea common in the book of Proverbs that a person’s most important possession is their good reputation for honesty and dependability.
In the English language, there are all sorts of swear words and all sorts of demeaning and hurtful words, but we often hear and speak the worst word of all: The word is “damn.” It is the most serious infraction of the law regarding taking God’s name in vain. The word “damn” means “to be condemned to hell by God.” So, when a person says something like, “damn all criminals” they are understood to mean “May God **** all criminals to hell.” It is such a vain statement that it implies that God will do what you tell him to.” To “damn” anything or anyone is to claim your power over God, and that is a huge sin. God can forgive anything, but it is not right to treat God with such disrespect.
Matthew 26 gives us the example of this kind of terrible behavior as Peter betrayed Jesus:
Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”
After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.”
Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”
Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
So, Peter committed an incredibly terrible crime, but he was later forgiven for it. We are not told the oaths and curses he said, but he was clearly taking the Lord’s name in vain as he betrayed Jesus.
So, our attitudes about language are misinformed, and Jesus clearly teaches us to convince people with our actions and not by empty promises. Crude language is unpleasant, but swearing oaths is something we should avoid.
A Question to Ponder: Have you ever been won over by the words of a person whom you knew to be untrustworthy?