The people eagerly awaited the moment when he would be called. Everyone wondered what he would say. The tension was so thick, you could cut it with a knife.
Finally, the judge came in. Everyone rose to their feet.
They were asked to be seated. Then the Judge asked for the first witness. The prosecution replied, “Your honor, the state calls John Hodges.” The noise level rose in the room. Feet began to stir. Photographers readied their cameras.
And then John was ushered into the room from the back. The doors swung open. And in walked Mr. Hodges. When he arrived at the front, the bailiff was ready to swear him in. But just as the Bible was brought forward, the judge interrupted. “You know I’ve been thinking. Why don’t we just forgo this part of the proceedings? I believe you’ll tell the truth. Just step right up there in the chair and tell us what you know.”
John looked surprisingly at the judge but did as he was told. The courtroom was in an outrage! “You have to swear him in.” “What if he doesn’t tell the truth?” “If he doesn’t give his oath, nothing is preventing him from telling a lie!”
If you think this is strange, you would be no different from the people on this hillside that afternoon as Jesus continued His sermon.
READ MATTHEW 5:33–37 (CEB)
You could translate this word in many different ways:
Oaths had been a part of who they were since the days of their ancestors. In fact, the people were encouraged to make vows in the name of God. It was a sign of their allegiance to God rather than idols.
Deuteronomy 6:13 says:
Fear the Lord your God, serve Him only and take your oaths in His name. Do not follow others gods… (Deuteronomy 6:13)Many people followed God’s command!
- Abraham swore on God’s name in Genesis 14:22.
- Joseph swore on God’s name in Genesis 47:31.
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by Myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” (Genesis 22:15–17)So, just to recap: God commanded them to do it. We have record of some of the heroes of the faith doing it. And God Himself did it! So, why was Jesus so bent out of shape about oaths?
Here is the problem: Over the years, these vows had changed. And Jesus was not the only person of his day to notice this.
A Jewish historian, Philo, said during this time:
To swear is only second best, because the mere fact of swearing casts suspicion on the trustworthiness of man.” (Philo of Alexandria)In other words, why do you need to swear at all? The very fact that you need to swear in the name of something implies that there is a possibility you might be lying!
So maybe a good question for this text is this: What happened between the time of Abraham and the time of Jesus? How could oaths be “so good” in the beginning and “so bad” by the time Jesus gave this sermon?
Think of it this way. I’ve picked on John; now let me pick on someone else. Charles Prather was a merchant in Jerusalem. He wasn’t the most honest merchant in town, but he wasn’t the worst either. He had a buggy full of falafels that he had to sell. They had been sitting in his cart for a week. They were beginning to look their age. Charles comes across Virginia Chambers who is in town for the Passover. Virginia is not schooled in city ways; she is just in town for the festival. She was a religious woman! She was just the kind of person Charles was looking for! Charles offers to sell his entire buggy of falafels to Virginia.
“Virginia,” he says, “I admire your dedication to God. I am so proud of you for making this long journey to Jerusalem for the Passover. Let me tell you what I’m going to do. Because I like you, and because I respect your religious dedication, I’m going to give you this entire buggy of falafels for only 10 dollars! Now, you can’t tell anyone else about this! This is a great deal, and I can’t give it to everyone!”
Virginia thinks she is getting a great deal, because she doesn’t know any better. “OK, I’ll take this buggy of falafels. I really appreciate you giving me such a good deal. Now, are you sure these falafels are worth 10 dollars?” Charles replies, “I swear by our God that they are!”
You see, people were using God to add validity to their claims. Whether their claims were true or not. They were utilizing the culture’s strong dedication to God as a crutch for their own gain!
The scribes and Pharisees were just as concerned as Jesus about people making oaths and vows in such a casual, and many times dishonest, manner. So, they said oaths to God were permitted only for serious issues!
- Life-long commitments
But Jesus says it: “Don’t swear at all!” In fact, He scorns the religious leaders for their attempts to skirt the issue. They had made special rules about oaths in an attempt to keep people from swearing casually in the name of God. They said, “If you are going to make all of these oaths, at least don’t involve God! Swear in the name of something else.”
- Even yourself
So, here is my question for you: Does this passage have any bearing on our lives at all?
Let’s just be honest. This is one of the parts of Scripture many people just glance over. They read and study the preceding sections but this one gets passed by. Hours spent on adultery. Lifetimes spent studying divorce. You often hear quoted, “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” But not many people talk about oaths. Many people don’t even realize this section is in the Sermon on the Mount! But here it is!
So, how should we, as the people of God, hear this Word of God in twenty-first century America? If we look at this passage as “the laws of Jesus” we begin to ask some strange questions: “Are you condemned to hell if you have to appear in court and they make you swear before God?” “Are you lost if you sign a contract when you buy a house or a car?”
However, if you look at this sermon relationally, you begin to see the real intent of Jesus. Your lens will shift. You will not be scared about your inability to live your life without making promises or contracts. Instead, you will be excited about the possibility of what a life of integrity could do in this fallen world!
I think this often overlooked portion of Jesus’ sermon has some important words for us. In the end, these words are all about honoring our commitments and following through with our promises. It means when your marriage gets difficult you don’t cut bait and run. It means you stay. It means you honor that commitment.
It means (parents) that your job doesn’t come before your children. It means you give them the time and attention they deserve. It means you make them the priority they should be. It means you honor that commitment.
It means you don’t allow your spiritual life to lose the competition with other items on your calendar. That ballgame might be important. Eating out every Sunday might be important. But is that ballgame more important than time with God? Is that meal more important than giving to God? A faithful following of this text means honoring your commitment to God as well.
I would love to live in a perfect world, wouldn’t you? A world in which people kept their commitments. A world where you never had to second guess anyone’s motives. My guess is that that world would look a lot like Jesus.
Jesus came here not only to die, He came to show us how to live. Jesus said He was going to save us, and He did. Jesus said He was going to give us His Spirit, and He did. Jesus said He will come back, and He will.
If you look at the life of Jesus, you see it. You see the world as God intended for it to be. A world in which a brother sacrifices himself for his brother. A world in which imperfection is defeated by perfection. A world in which the Son of God follows through with His commitment to us!
I’ve said it before. God did not give us this sermon to create more anxiety in our lives. God gave us this sermon so that we could find a better way to live. He showed us a way out of the vicious cycles we find ourselves in. This sermon is a picture of God’s Kingdom. May we fall so in love with this picture of God’s Kingdom that we work to make it a reality on earth as it is in heaven.