Pastor Steve Mechem
Matthew 5:33-37 New Revised Standard Version NRSV)
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Swearing is a big deal in our culture. In almost every area of life, we swear. I am not talking about using cuss words (words that have somehow been deemed to be taboo). I am talking about oath taking, vow making, swearing.
This past Friday, I was privileged to be in the 3rd floor courtroom of the Thomas F. Eagleton US Courthouse in St. Louis when Comey, now Catherine Htoo, raised her right hand with 48 other immigrants from 28 countries and swore an oath of allegiance to this country and officially becoming a citizen. Congratulations Catherine!
When a person is elected to a political office, she or he, stands in front of a judge or person in authority, places her or his hand on the religious book of their choice and swears to uphold the ruling documents by which he or she was elected.
In business settings, we make vows and oaths that are generally codified in contracts.
When we sell our home, we sign an affidavit about the soundness of the property and swear the information in the document is true.
If we testify in court, we swear to tell the truth.
When two people fall in love, they often make life long commitments to each other through their wedding vows. The couple stand before their family and friends, and before God; they face each other, wipe the nervous sweat from their faces, look into each others eyes, hold hands and say something like…
“So and so, today in the presence of God,/ our family and our friends,/ I join my life with yours./ You are my dearest love and my best friend./ I promise you my love without limits./ I look forward to God’s blessings/ as we grow together through the years/ and share all that is to come./ I vow to give and to receive,/ to speak and to listen,/ to inspire and to respond,/ and to be your refuge in times of sorrow and uncertainty./ I will be honest with you always,/ I will be faithful to you,/ and I will cherish you everyday of my life.”
These words constitute a vow as a couple swear to take care of each other for life.
Swearing oaths and making vows is a significant part of religious life as well. We have all heard of vows of poverty and vows of celibacy. And even in our church, new members make a vow to our congregation and the congregation makes a vow back.
In the right hand of fellowship service,
I say to a new member, “So in so, in the presence of God and these witnesses, do you commit yourself to Jesus Christ as Lord, and do you willingly enter into the fellowship, the joys, and the responsibilities of membership in Second Baptist Church?
And the new member responds, “By the grace of God and the support of these people, I Do!”
And the congregation is asked if they will accept So in So into this Church body.
And the congregation replies, in unison, “As members of this church, we gladly welcome you into the community of faith known as Second Baptist Church. We promise to walk with you prayerfully and compassionately, and to promote, with God’s help, your spiritual growth. Amen.”
These promises are swears, vows we make.
And in the daily walk of life, many of us swear continually. Some of us may swear like sailors, but that’s for another sermon. Many of us swear, as in make vows, in our ongoing conversation.
How many times a day to you hear somebody say something like,
“I swear to God.” or
“I swear on my children’s lives,” or
“I swear by the universe,” or
“I swear on my grandmother’s grave,”
Swearing, oath taking has been around since the beginning of language. Swearing is an effort to give more importance to what we say. It adds “umph” to our words and emphasizes our sincerity and honesty.
In a weird twist on vow taking. Swearing oaths is often a way we mask lies. The more one swears something is true, the more suspicious they become.
Interestingly, we have added phrases along the way that have in actuality become synonymous with “I swear.” We hear “believe me,” “mark my word,” “I’m telling you the truth,” “honest to goodness,” used in the same way as “I swear” is used.
Swearing, oath taking plays a significant role in the Hebrew Bible. People are always swearing by somebody or by something. There is this unusual tradition during the time of the patriarchs when people would swear something to each other by grabbing them by the thigh and saying their vow.
The Torah commends Israelites to swear a solemn pledge before God and people.
But, swearing falsely (lying) is considered a sin against God according to the Scriptural text and is dealt with harshly.
Swearing became a way of life for Jewish culture (just as swearing is a way of life for almost every other culture).
Jesus addresses the issue of swearing in the S.O.M.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
People swear by all sorts of things, Jesus says, God, nature, buildings, cities, people. And all swearing does is set you up for failure. Because,
1) If you swear every time you say something, people will not take your vows seriously.
2) Vows are often used to shield lies. The Shakespearean adage, “methinks you protest too much” is applied to vow taking. The bigger the swear, the less credible it sounds.
3) Simple truth- sometimes the vows we make we cannot keep even if if we are completely sincere when we make them. And so we fail in our vow.
The better way, says Jesus, is let your yes be yes and your no be no. No need for extra vows or oaths. Let your “Yes” stand.
And Jesus goes further in his teaching by telling us that our words without action mean nothing. In one parable, Jesus reminds us that saying yes and then acting no is unacceptable.
Jesus reminds us that our fruit is seen in the doing, not just the saying.
Don’t swear by anything.
Let your yes be yes.
And, please oh please, Act out that yes!
The crowds on Palm Sunday, swinging their branches, laying their coats on the ground, singing hallelujah to the annoyance of the religious elite were acting yes.
They would not be stopped in their exuberant yes to the coming King and the Kingdom of love and grace!
Jesus told the detractors, “even if this crowd is quiet, the rocks themselves would be singing and dancing and cheering yes!”
We act out yes
when we worship sincerely
when we serve unselfishly
when we forgive completely
when we accept and include
when we stand with the bullied
when we wok for justice
when we show mercy
when we express grace
when we refuse to be silent
when we will not give up
when we affirm the worth and dignity of every person
We act “yes” when we follow Jesus to the cross.