Soap, mouths, and how we could all stand to clean it up

Matthew 23:16-22

16 “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.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 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.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

James 5:12

12 Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.

            It is good to be back with you all after being gone last Sunday.  Many of you have asked where Sonya is today.  She went into labor this morning and she is currently giving birth to our 2nd child.  Don’t worry; Paxton is there with her for support.

            I just checked the weather forecast for tonight, and I think all of the children are going to be excited about this!  We are going to get a snow storm tonight and schools will be closed tomorrow.

            I like to joke around.  No, Sonya is not at the hospital and yes, school was already closed tomorrow because of Presidents’ Day.  I say things like that to be funny and many of you tell me that I fail miserably.  But what I need to be sure to do when I am done pulling your leg is to tell you that I am just joking around.  I want you to be able to trust me when I tell you something.  I want you to believe me and not assume that everything that I say is a lie.  And in all honesty, perhaps I need to tell a few less stories so that you can be sure to know when I am being serious and when I am joking.

            I have enjoyed stretching the truth for about as long as I have been able to talk.  My life is just too ordinary, so I fabricate alternate realities that better appeal to the interests of others.  I don’t remember any of the stories that I told growing up, but I do remember that every time I got caught stretching the truth a bit my parents would ask me the question, “Did I ever tell you the story of ‘The Little Boy who Cried Wolf?’”  And I knew that I had been caught.

            As a minister of the gospel it is important that people know that they can believe the things that I say.  As followers of Jesus, it is important that people know that they can believe you as well.

            Today we conclude our series on the Schleitheim Confession of Faith.  We have struggled through some difficult teaching; we have disagreed with the early Anabaptists and you have disagreed with me.  And that’s the way it should be!  The reason that these things needed to be discussed back in the 16th century is the same reason that they need to be discussed today: intelligent people disagree on these issues and don’t always come to the same conclusion.  My intention has never been to make us all come out at the same place on these seven difficult points but to challenge us all to think more deeply about them.

            Today’s article is as follows:

VII. We are agreed as follows concerning the oath: The oath is a confirmation among those who are quarreling or making promises. In the Law it is commanded to be performed in God’s Name, but only in truth, not falsely. Christ, who teaches the perfection of the Law, prohibits all swearing to His (followers), whether true or false – neither by heaven, nor by the earth, nor by Jerusalem, nor by our head – and that for the reason He shortly thereafter gives, For you are not able to make one hair white or black. So you see it is for this reason that all swearing is forbidden: we cannot fulfill that which we promise when we swear, for we cannot change (even) the very least thing on us.

 So the Anabaptists made the decision to not swear oaths.   I didn’t quote but a fraction of what the article states as it is probably one of the longest and most theological of all of the articles in this confession of faith.  What Michael Sattler seems to have been doing was anticipating what other leaders during his day might say to argue with this position on the oath and we find him defending his position before others can even raise the issue.  And I have heard that this was read and disputed by such powerful reformers as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.  But before we get into all of that, let us first ask the questions, What does it mean to swear? and What does it mean to swear an oath?

            In both passages that we read today, as well as the one that I preached from last Fall from the Sermon on the Mount, the Greek word that we translate here as “swear” is ὀμνύω.  And since I am sure that you all remember everything that I say, you will remember that the second option for translating this word is “to affirm”.  The word “swear” is a verb.  It is an action word.  “Oath” is a noun.  You make an oath to do something; it is a pledge or a promise.  An oath is supposedly stronger than just a promise.  When you make an oath, you involve God.  You are inviting God to do something if you do not fulfill your part of a promise or agreement.

            In our society we hear people strengthening a statement by saying things like, “I swear to God, that pie had a piece missing when I got here!”  While I don’t think that most people realize the background behind that phrase, they are trying to assure someone that they are telling the truth.  In days past, to swear to God meant that if you did not fulfill your part of the deal that you were inviting God to punish you in some way.  Swearing an oath is divine collateral.

            Now some of you will prefer “swear” as an adjective, like “swear word.”  Synonyms would include, but are not limited to, curse, cuss, expletive, or just bad word.  When Jesus and James tell us not to swear, they are not telling us to not to cuss.  They also didn’t tell us to use those words, so watch your mouth.

            These two uses of the same word seem to have to do with the taboo nature of abusing the name of God.  The original swear words were taking the Lord’s name in vain.  And when you start throwing around language like “I swear to God, I didn’t eat that piece of pie” you are using the name of the Lord in vain.  Isn’t the study of language fun!  Let’s look at our text.

            I chose to have the passage from James read last for emphasis.  The first part of James 5:12 simply says, “Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear.”  Above all.  James seems to think that this is pretty important!  I checked several different versions of the Bible and they all say it about the same.  Above all, do not swear!  And this isn’t a reference to cursing; it is about not swearing an oath.

            So what is James talking about when he says that we are to hold not swearing an oath above all?  Remember that the book of James is filled with ethics and teachings on what we should do as followers of Jesus.  And this isn’t coming from just anyone.  This is coming from James the brother of Jesus!  In just this chapter alone, James has spoken of rich people not abusing their servants, but treating and paying them well.  James has spoken of waiting for the return of Jesus.  And James has spoken of the importance of prayer for a sick person.  That’s just chapter five, and James says that above all, we are to not swear.  Otherwise, he says, we will be condemned.

            I’ve got your attention now, don’t I!  You can see why the early Anabaptists thought it was important to not swear an oath!  Jesus was pretty straight forward about not swearing oaths, and so was James.  Which makes me wonder why this was an issue at all?

            I’ll tell you why.  Because God swears.  God swears oaths in the Old Testament.  Does God sin?  No, so if God does not sin and God swears oaths, then it must be okay to swear oaths, right?  Seems logical to me.  Let’s look at Genesis 22:16-18

16 And [God] said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

This is part of the story of the binding of Isaac.  Abraham is told to offer Isaac up as a sacrifice, Abraham doesn’t want to, but he is faithful and commits himself to do what God has commanded.  God stops Abraham and makes this oath to him.

            Now we should note that God swears by himself.  I love that!  Just as we might say, “I swear to God, I didn’t eat the pie!” God says, “I swear by myself that I will bless you!”  The pattern is the same; God invokes the name of the divine to strengthen his promise to Abraham.

It isn’t just Genesis 22, but multiple times throughout the Old and New Testament we find God swearing oaths.  Psalm 110, a messianic prophesy, is quoted in Hebrews 7:21, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever.’”  God swears a lot!

            The early Anabaptists explained this by saying that God is allowed to swear an oath because God is God.  And if God says something is going to happen it is going to happen.  However, when we swear, there is an infinite number of things that can go wrong and cause us to break our oath.  If I was a furniture maker and I swore to you, “May God strike me dead if I’m lying, I will have you your new chair ready first thing Monday.” but my shop burns down on Sunday, that would put God in a pretty sticky situation.  You said, May God strike me dead if I don’t get you your chair by Monday!  Only God can control all of those kinds of external variables.  That was their explanation for God swearing in the Old Testament.  We will come to my explanation later.

            Other Reformers in the 16th century believed that it was necessary to swear oaths and it was okay as long as you didn’t swear them by certain objects.  Remember that to swear an oath is to invoke the name of God as divine collateral.  But to a Jewish person living in Jesus’ day, it wasn’t kosher to speak the name of God.  Again, this comes from the command to not take God’s name in vain.  So 1st century Jews would swear by holy objects so as to not speak the name of God in vain.

            The Pharisees and other interpreters of the Law then came up with some sort of hierarchy of binding according to the value of the object by which people swore.  If you swore by the temple, yes, that was good.  But if you swore by the gold of the temple, that was an oath that you dare not break!  And Jesus just says to these people, you are missing the point.

            In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:34-35, Jesus says, “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.”  So in the Reformation, there were those that believed that it was necessary to swear an oath.  But they made sure it wasn’t by heaven, God’s throne, earth, Jerusalem, or your head.  And in the Schleitheim Confession, the Anabaptists said to these people, you are missing the point.

            The point as I see it is that the teachings of Jesus and James on the oath is that we are to be the kind of people that others know to be telling the truth.  People should know that they can trust us.  As Christians we are called to speak the truth.  Don’t lie.  It is that simple.  If you are the kind of person that people know always tells the truth, then you don’t have to worry about swearing oaths.  People just know that they can trust you.

            What an important topic to be discussing as we enter into the height of election season.  Politics both intrigues me and frustrates me at the same time.  And I’m not going to get into everything that bothers me, but let’s use this as an example of the importance of being trustworthy.

            Many people tune in to the political debates and some of us try to tune out the political commercials.  One thing that seems to be becoming popular, at least on the radio station that I tend to listen to in the morning, is to have something called a “Fact Checker” on the morning after a debate.

            A fact checker takes some of the numbers, claims, and data that were used in a debate to either make an opposing candidate look worse or make their own political career look better and checks it for accuracy.  And sometimes it is just mindboggling the things that politicians say that are not true!  A politician that lies?  That’s so cliché!

            Many of you may remember a Senator this past Spring was talking about the government’s decision to stop funding a particular organization, and I am not going to get into the issue at this time, but he claimed that “well over 90% of what [this particular organization]” does was something that his party disagreed with (intentionally vague).  When he was later confronted with the fact that this particular activity only made up 3% of this organization’s was what they were accused of directing 90% of their efforts toward.

            This Senator’s office was contacted and a representative said, “his remark was not intended to be a factual statement…”  Fooled me.

            It comes to a point that I just don’t take politicians seriously.  And the sad thing is that there are some politicians that are trustworthy and honest.  But a few bad apples can ruin my appetite for politics altogether. 

            Would we allow doctors to get away with this?  I would be pretty upset if a doctor told me I had a 90% chance of dying and later he told me that number wasn’t intended to be factual and that it was more like 3%.  Would we accept this from a teacher?  What would happen if our public school teachers decided that it was okay to just make things up on the spot?  Yeah, the United States was founded in 1981 by Ronald Reagan.

            We as Christians need to do better.  How can anyone trust us if we continually stretch the truth?  When we try to help someone socially, spiritually, financially, we need them to be able to trust us.

            Our society is full of people that have absolutely no intention of keeping their word.  They just want to get from someone else what they want.  And we can make fun of the Pharisees and the other legalists for their silly hierarchies of binding objects, but we do the same thing.  Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.  Pinky swear?  Promise me that you will do something.  Swear to me on your mother’s grave.  No, Jesus tells us that our yes is to be yes, and our no is to be no.  We shouldn’t have to say more than that.

            So why did God swear by himself in the Old Testament when making a covenant with Abraham?  I think that it comes down to how well we know someone.  Abraham was the first Hebrew.  His father worshipped idols and did not know our God.  So while Abraham had known God for a little while, God was still pretty well unknown to Abraham and his family.

            I might be the kind of person that always tells the truth (or at least I try to be), but if you don’t know me, what reason do you have to trust me?  I am not offended when someone requires that I sign a document when I take out a loan.  I am not hurt when I am asked to place my hand on a Bible and raise the other hand and repeat, “Will you tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”  I think it is funny that somehow they think that by putting my hand on the Bible or raising my other hand will make me tell the truth.  I was planning to tell the truth anyway. 

            Be the kind of person that people know is telling the truth.  You shouldn’t have to swear to your friends, family, and neighbors because they should know that you are the kind of person who tells the truth.

            Many of us know the ancient mathematician Pythagoras for his theorem: a2+b2=c2.  But he was more than just a mathematician.  He was a bit of a philosopher as well.  Pythagoras is credited for having said, “Let one’s word carry such conviction that one need not call deities to witness.”  Though Pythagoras and I would disagree on our deity, I think we agree on the swearing of oaths.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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