Everything Sacred: Jesus on Telling the Truth

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Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King.

Neither should you swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. But let your word “yes” be “yes,” and your “no” be “no.” Anything more than this is from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33–37)

Talking about the divorce law last week, I said that Jesus wasn’t changing the law; He was changing the way people used it. His teachings don’t represent an actual change of morality, where something that used to be right is now wrong or vice versa, but a reorientation of our hearts toward the law of God.

The New Covenant promise is that we will be people with the law of God on the inside, people who are inwardly oriented toward righteousness and justice. This is a powerful and a wonderful thing.

This passage of the Sermon on the Mount’s moral teachings is very much in line with that idea.

To unpack it properly, we need to get to the core idea of this teaching. That’s actually found not so much in the idea of oath-taking itself, but in the ten commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Or to put it more bluntly, “Do not lie.”

Kindergarten Promises

I was introduced to the idea of oath-taking (or “swearing”) the same place most people are: on the kindergarten playground at recess. There, swearing-of-oaths is used exactly the same way it is in the adult world. “Close your eyes and open your mouth; it’s not gross, I swear!”

The problem isn’t so much the act of “swearing” as it is the implication that if I wasn’t swearing, if I wasn’t taking an oath, you couldn’t necessarily trust what I say.

In kindergarten oath-taking is enjoined when it is clear that the speaker is not getting anywhere on the basis of integrity and trust alone, so something stronger is needed.

Invoking Accountability

In our modern world (maybe because of Jesus’s words) we’ve left off the older, more key part of oath-taking, which was actually invoking some higher power, precious thing, or terrible consequence to keep you accountable to your word.

We’ll still say, as a joke, “I swear on my mother’s grave,” but most of us never actually DO swear on precious or frightful things anymore.

In the ancient world that was the point.

Since I was likely to lie to you and you to me if it was to our benefit, I could only really establish my credibility by binding myself to something supernatural, essentially by calling down a curse upon my head if I break my word.

Most usually one would swear by one’s god. The idea is “as my god hears me and will punish me for lying, I am telling the truth.”

The Old Testament instructions concerning oath-taking were twofold: one, do not swear on any other god except Yahweh, your God; and two, keep your oaths.

Jesus’s telling his disciples not to swear at all suggests several things.

Embracing Integrity

First, that the very idea of oath-taking is coming from a wrong place, because anyone should be able to trust ANYTHING that comes out of your mouth.

My parents actually would not allow us kids to use the phrase “I swear,” largely for this reason. As soon as we have that phrase to fall back on, we decide that everything else we say somehow counts less. If we don’t play the super-integrity card, we don’t really need to have much integrity in our day-to-day interactions at all. I didn’t pinky-swear, so you can’t hold me to it.

Much like using the divorce law as license instead of as the protection it is, it’s human nature to see “don’t break your oaths” as a permission to go ahead and bend, twist, or break everything else.

Jesus will have none of that. You ought to be trustworthy all the time. Your word should be your bond, in a sense; and if you must change something you’ve said, you must do it with humility and apology and repentance, not with a gleeful “I didn’t swear!”

Christians should be the most honest and up-front people you will ever meet, and when we say “yes,” or “no,” people should know they can trust us to mean it.

(This, by the way, is one of those little things Jesus taught that has power to create wholesale societal transformation, and has done so in various societies since. Think about it. One way to judge the value of a moral teaching is to ask not “Do I want to live like this?” but “What would happen if everyone in my society lived like this?”)

The Power of Words

Second, Jesus implies there is power in invoking higher powers, and it’s not wise to do. “You cannot make a single hair white or black,” he points out in reference to swearing on one’s own head; i.e. on one’s own life.

To bind yourself by things you cannot control, to swear by higher powers that you will do things you may find yourself unable to do, is foolish.

The Scriptures are unanimous about the power of words. “Life and death are in the power of the tongue,” says Proverbs. It’s only natural; we live in a universe spoken into existence. Words are at the very base of everything; they define and energize reality. We should be careful with them.

We’re Not in Charge

Third, we are not in control and should not talk like we are.

Everything Sacred

Fourth, Jesus does away with the scale of sacredness.

Here’s the idea: I might be more comfortable breaking an oath sworn on Jerusalem than an oath sworn on God himself. Or if I’m a pagan, I might be more comfortable breaking an oath sworn on a lesser god than one sworn on a mightier god, because the lesser god might not notice or care or have as much power to thwack me for it. When we trade the requirement of absolute integrity at all times for weighing everything we say in terms of possible consequence, scales like this will always crop up.

Back to kindergarten: we would hear oaths like, “I promise I will catch you at the bottom of the slide, and if I don’t you can have my peanut butter sandwich,” and then when the promise was broken, “I don’t like peanut butter anyway.” That’s the concept: you’re only as trustworthy now as the potential consequence is severe or important to you.

But that means we’re creating a value system wherein we measure everything on a scale, and Jesus says the scale is false.

Do not swear by heaven, he says, because heaven is God’s throne.

All right then; I’ll swear by the earth—a lesser realm. No, says Jesus, that also belongs to God.

All right then; Jerusalem. No, that is God’s too.

All right then; myself.

But no, Jesus says, because YOU are also God’s, your life is not your own, you are not under your own control, nor do you have a right to throw your life away for a foolish oath.

We cannot measure our oaths on a scale of sacred to secular, because it all belongs to God. Everything is sacred.

Integrating Everything

To live and speak in the way Jesus calls us to in this passage means not just that we avoid tacking “I swear!” onto our speech but that we change the way we orient ourselves to life, to words, and to our world.

Integrity becomes important in itself and not just because of potential consequences. We stop measuring the world in terms of rewards and punishments, we stop splicing our existence into “God’s things” and “not God’s things,” we honor the power and the meaning of words and are not careless with them.

In all these things we integrate our existence: our speech, our life, our values, and our worship come into a unity of honor and submission to God.

We leave behind our right to be anything other than completely sold out to God at all times—body, soul, heart, and mind.

(This is Part 49 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)







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