In yesterday’s post, we looked at Jesus’ confronting command, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). Is Jesus calling us to do the impossible? And what did he mean by saying that he’d come to “fulfill” the law (5:17)?
Hopefully, when you read 5:21-32 you started to see a pattern. Each time Jesus quotes an Old Testament commandment and, in a sense, “raises the bar.” The law says “You shall not murder.” But Jesus says don’t even indulge in the attitudes that lead to murder: hatred and anger. He looks beyond the letter of the law, and brings out the intent of the law. Murder is simply the (extreme) outward expression of hatred and anger. So to obey the spirit of the law, rather than just the letter, Jesus calls those in the kingdom to regulate not just their outward behaviour, but their inward thoughts and emotions.
Similarly, Jesus goes beyond the outward action of “You shall not commit adultery” and tells those who would follow him not even to look lustfully. And he gives a rather graphic description of the lengths one should go to, in order to avoid such lustful looks. Jesus is exaggerating to show the seriousness of it, because in reality it’s not the eyes or hands (though they are involved) but the mind that sins.
Today, however, we’re looking at Jesus’ teaching on oaths, where he says:33-37 “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.’ (34) But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; (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 swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. (37) All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Now Jesus isn’t saying that oaths are bad in themselves. The Old Testament even instructs people to make oaths at various times. There’s nothing wrong with oaths. What Jesus is condemning is how people had come to use oaths for a purpose opposite to the original intention; to avoid following through on their word.
You see, it had become the custom that the seriousness of your oath depended on what you swore by. We get a few examples of this way of thinking when Jesus confronts the Pharisees in Matt 23:16-22. Some were saying that if you swear by the temple, the oath is not binding; but if you swear by the gold of the temple then it is. If you swore by Jerusalem, you were not bound by your oath; but if you swore while facing Jerusalem, then you were.
It’s a bit like a kid saying that a promise didn’t count because they had their fingers crossed. Or a politician claiming later not to be bound by his word because it was a “non-core promise.” Our whole society deals in wordy, complex contracts full of legalese that only lawyers understand. The spirit of a contract seems not to matter; as long as you can find a loophole, the letter of the law can save you from fulfilling your commitments. And so we play games with words – reneging on our promises as it suits us. Just like people in Jesus’ time.
But Jesus tells us not to kid ourselves. For a start, he says, whatever you swear by belongs to God and is under his control. So whatever you swear by, you’re really swearing by God himself; and he is a witness to your oath.
And Jesus then points to a better way, a way that’s radically different from the world around. For those in the kingdom of God, oaths are not needed. It’s not about the letter of the law; it’s not about what level of deceit you can or can’t get away with. Jesus points to the purpose behind the Old Testament law on oaths: that is, complete truthfulness in speech. Craig Keener writes, “Avoiding oaths is thus inadequate; the issue is telling the truth because God witnesses every word one speaks” (Keener, Matthew, 195).
So part of being perfect followers of Jesus is the pursuit of truthfulness at all times. Even when it costs us. Especially when it costs us. Resisting the temptation to play with words; the temptation to omit the parts of the truth that will hurt us. Being completely honest in our finances, even if it means we pay more tax. Owning up to our mistakes even if it makes us look bad in the eyes of others, rather than looking to shift the blame. For example, “Sorry I’m late, but the traffic was terrible” – now technically there was bad traffic, but the main reason I was late was that I slept in.
There are many things we can say about our calling to be truthful as Christians, but we haven’t got time to look at any of these topics in depth today. And often, when we do, we get caught up with the “hard cases” in each, trying to find the limits of Jesus’ instruction: how radically is Jesus telling us to do this? What are the exceptions? The classic example of ethical dilemmas in truth-telling is a WWII scenario in which a family is asked by Nazi stormtroopers, “are you hiding any Jews in your house?” Do you lie? Or do you tell the truth but in so doing condemn another to death?
While it’s right to explore these issues, we shouldn’t let the minority of ethically complex cases distract us from the vast majority that are not complex. I find that in my life, when I’m tempted to fiddle with words to distort the truth, most of the time it’s not to save Jews from death camps. It’s to stop me from looking bad. It’s for my own petty gain.
Therefore, oaths should, in the life of a follower of Jesus, be superfluous. Because we should already speak with integrity. We are to be radically different from the rest of the world. This goes beyond the laws on oaths and fulfils the intent – the spirit – behind it.
To think about
When are the times you are tempted to lie, or be loose with the truth? Be especially conscious today of your words, and note when you are not completely truthful (or tempted to be so).
In light of this, what truth-habits do you need to develop, and what do you need to avoid?