THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT (part eleven)
A pilot and his navigator had been shot down and were adrift at sea in their tiny lifeboat. After several days without food, water and any hope of rescue, the pilot began to pray. "God, you know I haven't lived a very good life. I've been a miserable husband and a terrible father. I've cheated, lied and stolen. And I haven't had any use for the church. But God, if you'll save us from dying out here, I promise I'll never-"
"Hold it", the navigator interrupted, "don't say another word; I think I see land." This navigator no doubt saved this pilot from making a promise he probably wasn't going to keep; at least for very long. Today, Jesus deals with the issue of making promises. Let's see what we can take away from it.
1) Stop swearing.
Matt. 5:33-37, “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 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 even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."
"You have heard it was said". We have Jesus starting out with this now familiar phrase. The words that follow have the third commandment in mind. Ex. 20:7, “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name."
Swearing by God or the things of God fit into the category of misusing the name of God. Obviously other things fit into that as well: profanity and the careless use of God or Jesus. This would also include Lev. 19:12, “ ‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD."
Swearing falsely is perjury. "Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth?" When you lie in the courtroom you lie under oath. You might say, 'well, that's just lying'. In one sense, but it's taken more seriously because you have taken an oath and have sincerely promised to tell the truth. Most people would probably say that although telling a lie is bad, telling a lie under oath is worse. Lying is one thing but when you lie having said, 'I swear to God I'm not lying', that's worse.
"Profane the name". To profane means to disrespect. To swear by the name of the Lord or use God's name in an improper way is disrespectful. In regards to the seriousness of making an oath we read in Num. 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."
So in Matt. 5, is Jesus going against this verses in Numbers? Jesus isn't saying, 'pay no attention to your oaths'. On the contrary, he understood the seriousness of keeping an oath; which is why he's saying don't make one in the first place.
Ecc. 5:4-5, "When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it."
Solomon's point is Jesus' point-making a vow to God is serious and you will be held liable if you don't fulfill it. And since many people no doubt made insincere oaths and paid dearly later when they couldn't follow through, Jesus wanted people to avoid that trap in the first place.
Prov. 20:25, "It is a trap for a man to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider his vows."
Making an oath without thinking it through can be quite costly. In the book of Judges we read about a mighty warrior named Jephthah. He was asked to be Israel's commander when the Ammonites were coming to war against them. Jephthah agreed and made his advancement.
Judges 11:30-35, "And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD'S, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering. ”
Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.
When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”
Oh sure, blame her! I don't know what he was thinking, but my guess is he assumed it would be an animal of some kind. But he didn't take time to consider that it might be a member of his family. Despite his irrational vow, you can't help but feel bad for all involved. What regret he must've lived with for the rest of his life. What a hard lesson.
We might wonder why God gave the Ammonites into his hands knowing how it would turn out. If the Ammonites had defeated Israel the casualties and fallout would've been much worse. Okay, but why not give the guy a break? I'm sure God tried to keep him from making this foolish vow. So why not just ignore the vow and save your daughter? Things would not have turned out so well had he did that.
God allowed this to happen and the tragic outcome would serve to instill an element of seriousness to making a vow or swearing an oath. I can guarantee that Jephthah never made a flippant vow to God after this; nor did anyone else for that matter.
Sometimes God allows a tragic situation to communicate the seriousness of something holy. He did it with Ananias and Sapphira when the church was starting out. I'm sure no one else in the church dared to lie about such things after that example. We can see how serious this is and that's the point Jesus is trying to make in Matt. 5.
William Burkitt's commentary states that the Pharisees taught that perjury was the only breach of the third commandment; and that swearing was nothing, if they did not recant themselves; and that people were only obliged to swear by the name of God in public courts of justice, but in their ordinary and common discourse they might swear by any of the creatures.
So, the Jews would swear by heaven or earth or Jerusalem to keep from swearing by the name of God and think it was okay. They believed God to be sacred but these other things not so much. But Jesus explains that's not the case; they had no right to engage something in their oaths that belonged to God.
Adam Clarke's commentary, "When we make any promise contrary to the command of God, taking, as a pledge of our sincerity, either GOD, or something belonging to him, we engage that which is not ours without the Master's consent." The people had no right to swear by something they couldn't lay claim to, including themselves. Since we belong to God, we can't swear by something that doesn't belong to us.
So when we say, 'I swear to God' or, 'I swear on my life' or, 'I swear on my Grandmother's grave' or 'I swear on a stack of bibles', we have no business doing that. God, his throne, our lives, these are precious to God. To use these things to our advantage in making an oath is to trivialize them-which is what Satan wants us to do. God wants us to honor the things that are holy and he wants us to value ourselves and our lives-not use them as pawns to secure what we're asking for.
Jesus had to address the Pharisees on this issue in Matt. 23:16-22, “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his 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 if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it."
Jesus wasn't supporting making oaths, he's highlighting the Pharisees' hypocrisy. "You say if you swear by the temple it means nothing but swearing by the gold upon it means everything? How is the gift or the gold more sacred than the alter or the temple?"
The Pharisees valued the gold and the gift more than the alter it was laid upon and the temple that housed it. They had it backwards. That was because they didn't want those bringing the gold or the gift to retract their oath and reclaim their gift; which would now be their gift through the offering. So, to keep this from happening, they trivialized the oath made by the holy things and maximized the oath made by the lesser things.
When we make oaths using the name of God or the things of God we minimize their value. We invoke them to serve our selfish purposes. And when we do that haphazardly we pay dearly when it's time to fulfill our vow. And if we back out of the vow we made to God and don't fulfill our end of the bargain God will hold us accountable. Jesus says don't swear at all because he knows how costly it can be to do so.
2) Let your 'yes' be yes and your 'no' no.
This is really all about honesty and integrity. Be a person who doesn't need to make oaths in order to be taken seriously. And don't anxiously feel you need to make an oath in order to take whatever you plan on doing seriously. If we need to make promises in order to be taken seriously or to take our commitment seriously then something's wrong.
The irony is, I think that making promises and swearing to do what I say is providing security for myself but actually that will cause the other person to feel less secure about me because they will wonder why I need to do that in the first place. If our 'yes' can't be trusted then there's a problem.
Back in the day when a person gave their word that's all that was needed. And if you developed a reputation of not being good on your word then a promise wasn't going to make much of a difference. Perhaps someone would give you a chance but if you broke your promise you could be sure you wouldn't be trusted again. Nowadays, we make empty promises and we don't think much of it. Integrity and honesty aren't the precious commodities they once were.
James 5:12, "Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned."
"Above all". James had been talking about having patience when we're suffering. James knew the temptation to make exaggerated promises and pledges when we're vulnerable. In the beginning of the chapter James is warning rich people who were oppressing others. Part of their oppression may have come in taking advantage of people in their state of poverty.
Sometimes the promises we make are desperate ones. We make our oaths under duress. And when we do this we can go to extremes and promise the world just to get out of some form of suffering and when that has passed we aren't prepared to make good on those pain induced promises. "I promise I'll pay you back next week."
Sometimes the person says this without any real intention on following through. However, some have good intentions but in reality, they likely will not be in the position to make good on it. Then there are those who mean it but when the opportunity to pay back comes they end up using the money for something else. They justify their actions and make themselves feel better by making another promise to make good the following week.
Integrity, honesty, responsibility. These qualities need to be the driving force behind what we say we're going to do; otherwise we shouldn't commit to it. We do this with God sometimes. "God, I promise if you get me out of this one I'll go to church every Sunday." How well do you think people keep that promise? Or how about, "I swear, Lord, if you get me out of this mess I won't ever do it again." And then soon after you did it again.
A wealthy businessman lay on his deathbed. When his preacher came to visit, he talked about God’s healing power and then he prayed for his parishioner. When he was done, the man said, "Preacher, if God heals me, I’ll give the church a million dollars." Miraculously, the businessman got better and within a few short weeks was out of the hospital.
Several months later, the preacher bumped into him in town and said, "You know, when you were in the hospital dying, you promised to give the church a million dollars if you got well. We haven’t received it yet." The businessman replied, “Did I say that? I guess that goes to show how sick I really was!” Perhaps this also went to show how sick he may have become afterwards.
We need to keep our word even if it hurts to do so. Psalm 15:4 describes a righteous person as one who keeps his oath even when it hurts. C. S. Lewis took that seriously. His biography tells of the suffering he endured because he kept a promise he had made to a friend during World War I.
This friend was worried about the care of his wife and small daughter if he should be killed in battle. Lewis assured him that if that happened he would look after them. As the war dragged on, the man was killed. True to his word, Lewis took care of his friend’s family.
Surprisingly, no matter how helpful he was, the woman was ungrateful, rude, arrogant, and domineering. Yet through it all, Lewis kept forgiving her. He refused to let her actions become an excuse to go back on his word. If we're going to say 'yes' we need to stay true to our word no matter how hard it is.
"No be no". I've emphasized the need to follow through on our oaths, pledges and promises which fall into the 'let your 'yes' be yes' category but what about the 'let your 'no' be no' category? How many times do we tell someone 'no' at first but we end up giving into them? When we say 'yes' we need to honor our word but we also need to honor our word when we say 'no'. If we don't, we won't be taken seriously and people will keep after us every time knowing we will eventually give in. We need to follow through on our yeses and our nos.
"Or you will be condemned". Sounds extreme. The Greek word used here for condemned can mean judgment or punishment. When we use God's name in a wrong way we are inviting consequences. We read earlier in Exodus 20:7 that God will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. Whether it's profanity, making a careless vow to God, swearing an oath using God's name or whatever, we'll be held accountable when we misuse the holy name of God.
We shouldn't need to make promises; we should show ourselves to be trustworthy simply by giving a 'yes' or a 'no'. However, if we're going to make a vow or promise, we need to understand the seriousness of it. So we need to think twice before we make a vow or promise or swear by something we shouldn't because if we don't it will cost us.
Robert Cunningham ate a meal in his favorite restaurant, Sal's Pizzeria, where he had been a regular customer for seven years. His waitress, Phyllis Penza, had worked there for 19 years. After his meal, Robert made a good-natured offer to Phyllis. He said she could either have a tip or split his winnings 50/50 if his numbers came up on the next lotto drawing. She decided to forego the tip and take her chances on the lotto. They sat down and picked the numbers out together.
On Saturday night, Cunningham won the jackpot of six million dollars. Now he faced the moment of truth-would he keep his promise and give her the 3 million? Cunningham, who was a police Sergeant, husband, father and grandfather decided to do the right thing. He said, "friendship means more than money". Although I don't encourage playing the lottery, I do encourage honesty and integrity. If we make a promise we need to keep it no matter the cost because not keeping it can end up costing us more.