Matthew 5:33-37 (NRSV)
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
The year was 1994 and I was an impressionable Middle School student. And like so many other Middle School students, I was strongly influenced by popular music. Unfortunately, popular music is not always wholesome and Christ-like.
Sometimes when there is something that becomes popular in the secular culture around us, Christians will take a stand against it. I am talking about Christians who protest and boycott things like movies and speakers at public events because of the message that they convey that is eroding the integrity of our society.
So in 1994, as an impressionable Middle School student wanting to hold strong to my Christian convictions, I staged a protest to a song that was on the radio because it differed so much from what I was taught growing up. That song was “I swear” by All 4 One. Have you ever heard such heathenry? Being the pious teenager that I was, any time the song “I swear” came on the radio I would sing at the top of my lungs “I affirm”.
Okay, that story was in no way real. But it is meant to illustrate something for you all today. It is meant to illustrate the fact that I am a liar. No, it is meant to illustrate that perhaps we sometimes get so caught up in issues surrounding language that we forget that what Jesus was after here is character development.
Today’s message is about swearing. And I’m not talking about cursing or using profanity. We are talking about swearing oaths. We are talking about truth-telling. And the way I see this going today is I will start by giving some background to our text, then I will say something that we will probably all agree with, then I will leave you with some unanswered questions to think about for the next week or two.
Our scripture begins today with the 4th of Jesus’ six antitheses. He says, 33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’” Jesus is not quoting scripture directly with this statement, but he is summarizing a number of Old Testament commandments. A few examples include: Leviticus 19:12, “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.” Numbers 30:2, “When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” Deuteronomy 23:23, “Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth.”
The Old Testament is clear: if you swear by God’s name or to God, you are bound to that oath. But the question that this leaves me is What if someone swears by anything other than God’s name? If they swear by something else, are they still bound to that oath? To be honest, it all seems a little silly to me.
Jesus picks up on this silliness as well. In Matthew 23:16-22 he says, “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”
Can you imagine living in Jesus’ day and age and you are trying to get a truthful response from someone? Or maybe you are trying to do business with somebody? How tough would this be! How could you even know if someone was telling the truth? Just getting dressed in the morning would be a challenge. I could ask my wife, “Do I look fat in this?” and she could answer no. And my next question would be, “Do you swear that I don’t look fat in this?” What should I think if she says, “I swear by the temple, you do not look fat in that!”? She just swore by the temple, so she isn’t bound by that oath, so that must mean I do look fat in my chosen outfit!
Imagine trying to do business and someone swears to you that they will have something ready for you by next Thursday. Do you swear by the gift on the altar? No, but I swear by the altar. This whole system seems silly to me. And to say silly is being nice. People in Jesus’ day were purposely swearing by things that were not binding and therefore providing loopholes for them to not actually have to fulfill their promise. It is like borrowing 5 bucks from someone and saying, “Yeah, I’m not going to pay you back.”
But here is the thing. I think that what Jesus is saying is that he would actually prefer it if you borrowed 5 bucks from someone and told them that you were not going to pay them back than to swear up and down that you were going to pay them back and never do it.
The rest of our passage says, “But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Let your yes be yes and your no be no. That is pretty much what James says in James 5:12 as well. All of this swearing by one thing and not another is compromising the integrity of the people involved. The point seems to be that we need to always tell the truth. If you say you are going to do something, do it. If you say that you are not going to do something, don’t do it. This isn’t ground-breaking ethical teaching. Jesus is simply saying, Don’t lie.”
This plays out in an interesting way for those of us that want to take the Bible and Jesus’ teachings seriously. Jesus says very clearly that we are to not swear at all. And the place that this seems to become an issue is when we need to swear an oath in a court of law. For hundreds of years Mennonites have refrained from swearing when they need to take an oath.
This is the teaching that I received when I was growing up as well. We were taught that if you need to appear in court for whatever reason, that we as Christians should not swear. We were told that we should affirm, not swear.
I did just that when I had to appear before court as a young man. I felt so pious. People there knew that I was a Christian because I did not say “swear” but instead said that I “affirm”. Now I am not trying to pick on anyone who has ever chosen to affirm rather than swear in any situation, like I said, I have done this as well. But aren’t we just substituting one word for another?
The Greek word that we find in the passage from Matthew and in James that is translated as “swear” is omnuo. If you look up omnuo in your Greek lexicon, the first definition is “to swear.” Any guesses as to what the second definition might be? “To affirm.” They mean the same thing, they are synonyms. To go before a court and affirm rather than swear is doing the same thing. The point is that we are to let our yes be yes and our no be no. We are to be the kind of people who tell the truth.
It isn’t all that easy to do in certain situations. When I first went to the Staunton courthouse to register to be able to marry people in the Commonwealth of Virginia, they made me agree to a few things. And I was not at all prepared for this; I really wish someone had warned me. I was asked to raise my right hand and I was asked something like, “Do you swear or affirm to uphold the Virginia Laws of marriage to the best of your knowledge and ability?”
They gave me the opportunity to either swear or affirm, so I guess that is a start. But I didn’t want to do either. I just wanted to let my yes be yes and my no be no. So I said something like, “I always uphold the law to the best of my knowledge and ability except in any case where the government requires me to do something that doesn’t coincide with my Christian faith, in which case I must obey God rather than human authorities.” The woman just kind of paused, scratched her head, and said, Okay. I guess it counted because I had my right hand in the air.
The point that Jesus seems to be making is that the exact words aren’t what is important. It doesn’t matter if you swear on the temple or on the gold, on the altar or the gift on the altar. It doesn’t matter if you raise your right hand or place it on the Bible. It doesn’t matter whether you swear on your grandmother’s grave, on the head of your first born, or swear to God himself. What is really important is that you are the kind of person who keeps their promises. If you say you are going to do something, you do it. If you say that you aren’t going to do something, you do not do it. We are called to be people of integrity.
The reason that I say that the language that we use isn’t all that important is because if we look at Paul, who was not without sin, but still a pretty good guy (especially post-conversion), we see that what he does swear an oath in a number of situations.
In 2 Corinthians 1:23, Galatians 1:20, and Philippians 1:8 Paul begins his letters by saying things like, “As God is my witness” and “I assure you before God” and “God can testify.” He seems to be starting out his letters by swearing that everything that he is saying is true. He isn’t making it up. Then in 2 Corinthians 11:31 as he is winding down his letter, he says God knows that I am not lying. Paul is evoking the name of God to help people realize that he is serious; that he is not lying. Again, Paul is not without sin, but I hope that he knew enough about Jesus to not swear four times in his epistles if it was really Jesus’ intention to not have his followers ever swear. I think that in Paul’s case, as he is seeking to bring the Gospel to people of different cultures and backgrounds, he finds it helpful to swear an oath so that people will take him a little more seriously. That doesn’t mean that there are times when he is free to lie. That doesn’t mean that when he doesn’t swear by God’s name that he is making things up. Paul is still a person of integrity. He stays consistent with Jesus’ teachings to not lie, but he uses the language of oaths and such when those that are outside of his faith and culture may not otherwise know that he is a person of integrity.
We need to be people who others trust. We need to be the kind of people that don’t have to evoke the name of God to prove that we are not making things up. We need to be the kind of people that others know they can trust. I like the way that New Testament scholar Hans Weder says it: “In church history, again and again this teaching is reduced to the legalistic, a Christian may swear no oath.” But that “passes right by the actual intention of Jesus: not on the not-swearing does he really aim, but on the truthfulness of every word.”
However, there is a difference between telling the truth and just being mean. I never really got into watching American Idol on television. Perhaps one reason is that I just never really cared for the rudeness of Simon. Simon was so straight forward in telling people that they were bad. And I think it was probably ramped up a bit because it made for better television, but he would just be so mean to people. People would frequently be reduced to tears by this man.
Of course there was also Paula who offsets Simon’s rudeness by telling people what they did right and not just focusing on what they did wrong. And she would often tell Simon when he was being rude. But I remember Simon saying on a number of occasions, “I’m not being rude. I am telling the truth. They really are that bad.” There are ways of telling the truth without being rude. Just because we are always to be honest doesn’t mean we have to be a jerk.
But are there ever times when you should intentionally lie? The best example that I have ever heard comes from the WWII era and the story of a Dutch woman named Corrie ten Boom. Corrie tells the story of when the Nazi soldiers came to the door of her niece’s home looking for men to forcefully enlist in the German army. Corrie’s niece was taught that it was never okay to lie to anyone. So when the Germans came looking for her brothers and asked where they were hiding, the young girl said very plainly, “They are under the kitchen table.”
The German soldiers believed that the young girl was mocking them because her brothers were clearly not under the table. What they didn’t know was that there was a trap door under the kitchen table that led to a secret room where the young men were hiding in silence.
Would God be upset if Corrie ten Boom’s niece had lied in that situation? I don’t know that he would. In fact, we find stories in the Bible where people clearly told little white lies and they were commended for it.
In Exodus 1:19 the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah were told to kill all male Hebrew babies when they were born. When they did not do as they were told and they were asked about it, they said that the Hebrew women are so strong that they have the babies before the midwives even arrive and that they therefore don’t have the opportunity to kill off the babies. And the Bible tells us that they were blessed by God because of what they had done.
In Joshua 2:4-6, Rahab lies when she is asked about the whereabouts of the Israelite spies. She says that she doesn’t know where they are, that they went out the gate before it was shut at nighttime. But she did know where they were. She had hidden them up on the roof and covered them over so that the people of Jericho couldn’t find them. She then let them out through her window, but not before they promised her that God would reward her for her actions. Did God reward Rahab for lying?
These are tough questions, and I’m not going to lie to you (pun intended), I don’t have all of the answers. But these types of questions seem to fall under the category of something called “situational ethics” which we will get into more next week. What I don’t want us to do is to get so caught up in the “what about” questions and miss the point altogether. If you are in a situation where a lie might save the life of another person, like the story of Corrie ten Boom or the Hebrew midwives, I would assume that God will forgive you for telling the lie.
The point that Jesus is making is that we need to be people of integrity. We are to renounce the casual lies that we tell and renounce any interest we might have in cheating someone. I like the way Ronald Preston puts it in his dictionary entry for “lying” when he says, “Most of the time people tell lies when they should not. The temptation comes suddenly, perhaps to get out of an awkward situation or to practice some petty fraud or deception, and they succumb. In order to have the discernment to know when a lie is called for, one needs to be habitually truthful.”