Matthew 5:33 – 37
Our Gospel passage this morning contains some very challenging commandments from Jesus. They are challenging because they go against the way that humans like to work. We are people of the loop hole, constantly looking for ways to get what we want while appearing to adhere strictly to the law.
I spend a lot of time driving, and there is nowhere that loop hole hunting is more obvious than when we get out on the roads. Everyone knows that you can go 5 or so miles over the speed limit without getting a ticket. You all know that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you come over a hill and see the officer with the radar gun pointing right at you. I even get that feeling when I am not speeding. It is comforting to panic and then to realize you were not actually speeding. It is pretty easy to turn a stop sign into a pause sign, or even a just-slow-down-a-little sign, especially if we can’t see any cops around.
What’s the problem with this sort of mild law-stretching? After all, we really don’t want to be law-breakers, right? There are consequences to breaking the law – speeding tickets can be expensive. That is, of course, where we place the majority of our consideration. But traffic laws are not necessarily put in place to generate revenue for the government. Texas law requires that drivers maintain a space in front of their vehicles that will allow them to respond to emergencies without hitting the car in front of them or having to swerve left or right to avoid a collision. Not many people leave that amount of space in front of them as they drive. A police officer could give you a ticket for following too close, but that is not the worst penalty available. In an average year approximately 1,100 people are killed and over 66,000 injured because drivers are too close to the car in front. Death is not what usually concerns us when we break this law. We worry about being late, or being cut off, or getting a ticket. But the law was put in place to avoid death and injuries. We worry about the surface issues, while the law was working on a deeper level.
Jesus’ commandments work in the same way. Law is a design feature of creation. You can see from an atomic level up: everything works according to law, and the laws function on many levels. Sinful and self-interested human beings interpret law according to their own desires and wants. Jesus said that the oaths and promises we make are good examples of that. So let’s think about oaths for a little while.
An oath is a solemn promise that is made using God as witness to assure that it is performed. Our Confession says that an oath is an act of religious worship. The nation of Israel was commanded in Deuteronomy 10:20, “You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve Him, and to Him you shall hold fast, and take oaths in His name.” God expected the Jews to use him as the judge of their honesty and reliability. We usually associate cussing with the third commandment, but I think that it probably has more to do with taking oaths that being potty-mouthed. We are not to take the Lord’s name in vain, meaning that we keep our promises when we invoke him as our witness.
The problems that arose from this commandment took two paths in the Old Covenant. First, the people would swear in the name of the Lord and then not perform their vows. Solomon decried that practice in Ecclesiastes 5:4 – 6, “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed— better not to vow than to vow and not pay. Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger of God that it was an error. Why should God be angry at your excuse and destroy the work of your hands?” Warnings just like this litter the Old Testament. Only a fool would make a vow, ask God to be the witness to the vow and then break the vow. The prophets constantly pictured the people as doing just that in their covenant with God.
The second way that vows caused problems is that the people would make them and then call an idol to be witness. The calling of the witness is an important act. When making the vow, the person doing it calls on the most powerful thing he knows to assure that he will keep his promise. In Deuteronomy 10:20, the Jews were commanded to make the Lord their witness. In their wickedness, those chose other gods for that function. This angered the Lord greatly. He intended that his people would call him as witness to their faithfulness in promises made. It is easy to see why that was: he should have been the most important thing in their lives.
By the time Jesus has come on the scene, vows have taken a very peculiar turn. Remember that the Lord has specifically said that vows are to be made in his name, and that vows made in his name are to be kept. Let’s read in Matthew 23:16 – 22 what Jesus thought of what they had done. Do you see the pattern? The temple is nothing, and you don’t have to keep vows made calling it to witness, but the gold in the temple is another matter. Gold is what gave the temple its value to those people. The altar where the sacrifice was made for your sins was not sufficient to require you to keep your oath, but the sacrifice, now that was something else altogether. You had to pay good money to buy a lamb, or a goat, or a bull for the sacrifice. Good money was something that was powerful and so we could swear by it. The altar, where our sins were cleansed was nothing.
In their actions they showed what was important to them. Their real theology came out of their fingertips. The things that they valued most were the ones that they invoked when making an oath. Gold and livestock; things of value that could be easily converted to cash. Do you think that we are subject to the same temptations?
I think it is inevitable that vows and promises will show us what is important in our lives. God certainly thought it was an accurate picture of the hearts of his people. Why would it be different in our time?
Before we go too deep into this, we need to consider carefully the implications of our position. The words of Jesus are pretty clear: call anyone to witness apart from God and we have messed things up pretty seriously. Our word should be our bond. If I remember correctly, there was a huge lawsuit involving Texaco, Getty Oil, Pennzoil, and about 11 billion dollars based on a hand-shake and a commitment to do business. A promise can have huge repercussions. 11 billion dollars is a lot of money, but I think that the eternal repercussions can be even higher. Look at Ananias and Sapphira. They sold some property and kept some of the money for themselves. There was nothing wrong with that, but they wanted the church to think that they had given all. Why was that a problem? They had not given an oath, as far as we can tell, so what is the big deal?
Christians are in a special spot. Jesus told them that their Yes should be Yes and their No should be No. On the surface, that is easy to understand: Yes or No, no dithering or deception, which is very good, but I think it means more than that. We are called the people of God; he has placed his name on us. We bear the name Christian, and so whatever we do or say is ultimately a reflection on the character and nature of our God.
So think about all the times when your yes was really no.