Summary: This short sermon seeks to encourage people to be men and women of their word.
What did Jesus mean? “Do not swear at all.”
Some of Jesus’ sayings can be taken out of context and made to sound like something else. Sometimes sections of the Bible are used to justify or to condemn certain activities – sometimes the Bible is misunderstood. Sometimes people give up trying to understand what the Bible says, but I want to encourage you to stick with it, to use it, to grapple with it, and to seek to know it – not just to know what it says, but to know what it means and what it tells us about God, and about the human condition.
When Jesus said, “Do not swear at all” it was in a particular context, it was during his teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount, and it was during a section of teaching where Jesus is seeking to correct misunderstanding, not create more misunderstanding!
A former archbishop of Canterbury arrived in New York. A journalist asked him, “Will you be visiting any of our nightclubs whilst you are here?” The archbishop mischievously replied, “Are there any night clubs here?” Next day a newspaper headline read: “Archbishop’s first question on arriving in New York: ‘Are there any night clubs here?’” How easy it is to misquote or misunderstand without a context!
Jesus said, “Do not swear at all”. It has nothing to do with profanity; but because Jesus is talking about the use of oaths this has been used by some Christians to forbid making an oath in a court of law, or when producing an affidavit; and whilst I understand that interpretation I disagree with it; because Jesus was focusing upon integrity. ‘Integrity’ was his focus when he said “do not swear” and so it should be our focus too, because whilst it may be obvious, when seeking to interpret the Bible we should look at what has just been said and what’s about to be said. The context!
The Old Testament permitted oaths to be taken, even oaths in God’s name. The best example might be Deuteronomy 10: 20 – “Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to Him and take your oaths in His name.” And it’s there in the New Testament too, so this talk is fast becoming as much about how we use and interpret the Bible as it is about this specific statement of Jesus. St Paul often swears by God’s name in the New Testament, calling God as his witness. For example Romans 1:9, “God whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son is my witness how constantly I remember you.” 2 Corinthians 1:23, “I call God as my witness.”
What may come as a surprise is that God swears! The writer to the Hebrews tells us that “when God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no-one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself …he confirmed it with an oath” (Heb 6: 13-17).
A more detailed study of the Old Testament shows that God’s people were not to swear falsely. Put more positively they were to fulfil their vows and their oaths.
The problem was that by the time of Jesus an entire legalistic system had been developed to describe when an oath was binding and when it was not. It went something like this: If you swear by Jerusalem you are not bound by your vow. You can break it; but take care, because if you swear toward Jerusalem you are bound by it. You cannot ever break it. It’s like when I was at school if we promised to do something and said ‘cross my heart and hope to die’ then it was unbreakable, but if we made a promise with our fingers crossed then the promise meant nothing.
So I am sorry – or perhaps I’m not sorry – I know I said I would come round to trim your hedge, but I said it with my right hand in the air and my left trouser leg rolled up so I don’t have to keep my word.
So Jesus said “do not swear” because he wanted to bring to an end a system that had effectively provided rules as to when it was OK to lie. Swearing evasively had become a justification for lying, and so Jesus was calling ordinary people back to the intention and the spirit of the law – to be people of truth; people of integrity: Don’t swear by this, that or the other. Don’t swear to make your word seem more truthful, and don’t swear in order to try to wriggle out of it later.
Jesus added, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’, ‘No’. Mean what you say and say what you mean. It’s not a reason to refuse to swear on the Bible in court because it is simply about being truthful.