Matthew 5:33-37 (9)
Jesus continues His logical progression through what had become the Pharisees interpretation of the Law of Moses to show how the righteousness of the kingdom citizen must exceed theirs. We have reached the point where I think the Pharisees must have been feeling very uncomfortable. They thought they were law keepers, ‘par excellence’, but Jesus had shown them just how they conveniently re-interpreted the command to suit themselves. His next illustration shows their hypocrisy regarding oaths.
‘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.’ (5:33-37)
To get a better understanding of what was happening at the time we must look at what Jesus said about the Pharisees on this subject. “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.” (Matt 23:16-22) The Pharisees would not take the name of God upon their lips for fear of breaking the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Exo 20:7) When referring to God they simply said ‘the Name’ and they certainly wouldn`t use it in the blasphemous way that so many do today. As always, whenever there is a command, there will be someone trying to find a loophole to get round it. How did they do it? Simply by swearing by something that was associated with God without actually using His name. That should do it! So we see, from the above references in Matthew, the number of things they could swear by without using God`s name and not be bound by their oath.
Jesus calls them ‘blind men, blind fools, blind guides,’ those who were supposed to be the leaders of the people were completely lost themselves. He tells them that everything associated with God, the temple and its gold, the altar and the gift upon it, are all equally holy, and so by swearing by any of these binds a person to his oath. In Matthew 23 Jesus` purpose is to expose the hypocrisy of the Pharisees showing that their word could not be trusted in fact they were like their “father the devil,” who has “no truth in him.” (John 8:44) They could make fine sounding oaths without any intention of keeping or feeling guilty about breaking them. ‘Oaths arise because men are so often liars’ (A M Hunter)
In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus is showing how our righteousness should exceed that. The Pharisee had completely missed the whole point and we must be careful that we don`t do the same. Israel, God`s people, had the responsibility of honouring God in all their dealings whether with each other or with the nations around them. If they failed to do that God would not hold them guiltless.
The kingdom citizen, the believer, the child of God, also bears that responsibility of honouring the name of God. Jesus instructions are quite straight forward “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’; and your ‘No’, ‘No.’” This is all about integrity. We should not need to swear by anything. It used to be said ‘that the Englishman’s word was his bond.’ I`m sure it was not true in all cases but nevertheless it was expected that what was promised would be fulfilled. Sadly this is no longer true of the Englishman. How often have we heard loud protestations of integrity regarding political or international affairs when the person in question is not being true and loyal to their marriage vows. The present government is a prime example of this and yet they assure us that we can trust them. ‘You may depend upon it; the more oath taking the more lying generally among the people.’ (Coleridge)
You are probably thinking ‘what do you expect that is politics’ but sadly this is also happening among Christians. Just before writing this I was watching the TV programme ‘Watchdog’ and on it they looked into a company selling airline tickets for flights that did not exist. In fact there had been no flights at all and the company had no licence for this business. A company representative came on the programme to answer their questions and he started by saying that it was a company with Christian values of integrity, honesty, etc. If he was indeed a Christian from a Christian company then they all should have been ashamed of themselves for bringing God`s name into dishonour by associating it with their bad business practice.
As Christians every action we make, every word we speak reflects on the name we bear. It is as if we are signing cheques on behalf of God. As such we should be known as people of our word, we should not have to add an oath to what we say. ‘An oath is needed only if a person`s word alone is unreliable; it is an admission of failure in truthfulness.’ (R T France)
I used to work with someone who would tell the most outrageous tales and would then add, ‘I swear by … that it`s true.’ As another workmate said, ‘He couldn`t lie straight in bed and wouldn`t know the truth if it jumped up and hit him in the face.’
“Above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” (Jam 5:12) Is James taking Jesus words even further and banning any taking of oaths? On the basis of this text the Quakers refuse to take an oath, even in a law court, but I don`t think that is what James means. Jesus when asked, with an oath, by the High Priest if He was the Son of God gave an answer whereas before this He had remained silent. This is not talking about a legal procedure but as a principle for the whole of life. Whenever we speak or act we are to do so in a way that the “righteousness” for which we hungered in the beatitudes shines out. We do not want “to take the name of the LORD our God in vain” so let us make sure that in all things we honour His name. ‘The form in which this third commandment is broken most completely, most awfully, most terribly is by perpetually making use of the name of the Lord, while the life does not square with the profession that is made.’ (G Campbell Morgan) A Christian`s word should be his bond, with no need to add anything to it. What he promises he should fulfil, his ‘Yes’ should be Yes and His ‘No’ should be No, in every area of his life.
If in our speaking we desire to show we are kingdom citizens then we must echo the words of hymn writer Frances Ridley Havergal. ‘Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King; Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.’