Taking Oaths and Making Promises
Truth, Oaths, Lying, Sermon on the Mount
We suffer in our society from a crisis of trust. We find it hard to believe anyone fully. Politicians lie to us by distorting figures and making promises they know they can’t deliver. We read touching stories in the news that are actually fabricated; There was a stretch earlier this year when
NBC News anchor Brian Williams was caught lying about being in an army helicopter that was shot down during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, resulting in Williams’s six-month suspension from the network. Next, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly came under fire (figuratively, that is) for apparently fabricating tales about his coverage of the 1982 Falklands War; he claimed he was in an “active war zone” and that he “survived a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands war,” but the evidence—and some of his former colleagues—says otherwise. Lastly, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald apologized for lying about serving in the Special Forces.
Is it any wonder then that we have a crisis of confidence?
Jesus speaks to this issue in our text today.
33 “You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ 34 But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!’ because heaven is God’s throne. 35 And do not say, ‘By the earth!’ because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, ‘By Jerusalem!’ for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. 36 Do not even say, ‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black. 37 Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.
There are two things we need to understand before we dig too deeply into this passage. First, Jesus is not saying you should not make ANY vows. You can sign tax forms, a marriage license or exchange vows in a wedding, you can testify in court, and you can sign for a loan. All throughout the Old Testament there are vows made. God made a covenant (a vow) with Israel to be their God. In the New Testament we read about Paul fulfilling a vow he had made. The disciples declared things with vows. So Jesus is not saying vows in and of themselves are evil.
Second while He is saying that we should keep the vows that we make to the Lord. He is taking us deeper. The Bible is clear that when we make a promise to God, He expects us to keep that promise. When we attach His name to a promise that we make (like “So help me, God), He expects us to keep those promises. He expects us to keep all the vows we make to Him and in His name. This would include our marriage vows, our baptismal vows, our church membership vows, and all other promises in His name. But Jesus is taking us deeper still.
In Deuteronomy 23:21-23 we read
21 “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, be prompt in fulfilling whatever you promised him. For the Lord your God demands that you promptly fulfill all your vows, or you will be guilty of sin. 22 However, it is not a sin to refrain from making a vow. 23 But once you have voluntarily made a vow, be careful to fulfill your promise to the Lord your God.
The Pharisees were aware of these laws and proclaimed them boldly. The distinction Jesus is making is much more subtle.
To the Scribes and Pharisees an oath sworn to the Lord was indeed sacred. However, if you did not expressly mention the Lord’s name, then the oath was not near as binding. And so in everyday conversation you would hear oaths such as “by heaven” or “by the earth” or “by Jerusalem”. They would make huge promises but felt they didn’t have to keep the promises because they did not make an oath by the name of the Lord.
In other words, the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law had developed some loopholes that would allow them to make promises and basically say, “I had my fingers crossed so it doesn’t count”. Jesus condemned such actions.
What Does All of This Mean to Us
The first thing I think we are to learn from this command of Christ is that any time we make a promise or swear an oath it is a promise that involves the Lord. There are three reasons this is so. First, God hears everything that we say. It is not just our promises that God hears. He hears EVERYTHING. The Lord commands us to be “truth-tellers”. Because we belong to Him we should be people who are true to our Word because God is true to His Word.
If a salesman for a company misrepresents the product that is being sold or makes guarantees that cannot be enforced, we will believe that the company itself is untrustworthy. In other words, if the representatives of the company cannot be trusted, then neither can the company be trusted.
The same thing happens when, as believers, we do not fulfill our promises, people conclude (wrongly) that God cannot be trusted.
The second reason every promise is a promise that involves the Lord is because there is nothing that we can swear “by” that does not belong to the Lord. And there is nothing we can swear “to” that does not require the Lord’s permission before it can happen. Also, when we swear by something other than the Lord we are actually involved in an idolatrous practice. We are appealing to something other than the Lord to verify our truthfulness. When we do this we are engaging in an idolatrous action.
R.C. Sproul hits the nail on the head,
As children we learned how to give sacred vows: “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” If we wanted to elevate it to the next level, we would say something like, “I swear on my mother’s grave.” . . .. When we swear by heaven, our mother’s grave, or anything else, we are attributing to created things the power and authority that belong only to God. To attribute to my mother’s grave omnipotence (total power) and omniscience (total knowledge) is to make of my mother’s grave an idol, which does dishonor to God.(Sproul loc 1765)
The point then is that it doesn’t matter by what you swear. There is a sense in which anytime you swear an oath by ANYTHING you are swearing that oath before the Lord. These other things are powerless to stand as collateral, so to speak, for our promise.
Second, there should be little need of oaths at all There is an implied question in the words of Jesus: Why do you need to take an oath about something?
We all know that there are documents and testimonies that require oaths but . . .there is really no reason for oaths in other dealings. Think about it, aren’t you really saying, “I swear I am telling the truth . . . .not like the other times I say things!”
Jesus says, Why not just let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no”. Jesus urges us to be people of integrity ALL the time so that swearing is not necessary.
There used to be a day when a man’s word was his bond. Those were days when integrity was king. Unfortunately it seems those days are in the past. We are told to “get everything in writing”. Why? Because we have come to believe that we can’t trust anyone. And why is that? It is because we have found ways to get around our promises and agreements with each other.
In our current society we insist on getting things in writing because the only way we can be sure someone will uphold their end of the contract is if they are compelled to do so by the courts. There seems to be no motivation to being honest if we can get away with being dishonest.
The Benefits of Truth-Telling
“Honesty is praised,” wrote Juvenal, the first-century Roman poet and satirist, “and starves”. Honesty is extolled by everyone as a virtue (though practiced, it often seems, by few). Jesus is encouraging us to be people who are truth tellers all the time . . . not just when we swear we are telling the truth.
Josh McDowell wrote a book titled Right from Wrong some years ago about truth. In the book he talked about some of the practical benefits of telling the truth which I paraphrase here:
- Truth telling allows us to avoid having to live with guilt; and makes it possible for you to live with a clear conscience. Guilt is a powerful emotion. It will dog your steps and haunt your soul. Edgar Allen Poe pictured this the best in his story, “the Telltale Heart”. A man killed someone and buried him under his house. Guilt made him believe he was hearing the heartbeat of the man he had killed. This eventually drove him crazy and he confessed to the murder.
- It allows us to know the true joy of accomplishment. In other words the person who lies to get a job or changes his grades to get into school will never know if they could have succeeded without cheating. And if you cheat you have to live with the possibility that some day your deception is going to be discovered. We have seen this with best-selling books that were exposed as frauds, leaders who lied about their education, military service and more. These people have to live with the lie always threatening them.
- Telling the truth keeps you out of the cycle of deceit. One lie leads to another, which leads to still another. Frankly, it becomes hard to keep track of all the lies you have told. The best example of this is Richard Nixon in Watergate. It wasn’t the break-in at the Watergate hotel that caused Nixon to resign from office; it was the cover-up. It was the endless web of lies that had to be told. God wants us to have a reputation for integrity.
- Telling the truth keeps you from ruining relationships and instead produces trusting relationships. Someone has said, “If you tell the truth all the time, I can believe you all the time. But if you only tell the truth some of the time. I can’t believe you any of the time.” (Right from Wrong, Josh McDowell p, 174-179)
We know that Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees for not telling the truth all the time. He confronted their idea that you can lie in little things and it is OK. You can make promises, but as long as they are not vows before God . . . it is OK to break those promises. Jesus said, “No, it is not OK”.
The question that hangs over us is this: How does this apply to us? The simple application is that we need to be truth-tellers. If we ever want to have an impact for the gospel of Jesus Christ we have to first be people who are known for telling the truth. That is easier said than done. We live in a cynical age so the only way you can get a reputation for integrity is for you to tell the truth over and over and over again.
We live at a time when we assume that other people are going to lie to us.
- We don’t believe the car dealer when he says that “this is my best price”
- We don’t believe the politician who tells us that he is going to fix all the problems that have been around for decades.
- We don’t believe the person with substance abuse problems when they tell us they are cured.
- We don’t believe the television pitchman who tells us that the product he is pitching is the best thing he has ever seen.
And sadly it is getting harder and harder to depend on people. People tell you that they will help with a project but they only tell you this because that is how they can get you to stop bugging them. When the time comes to help, they just don’t show up, because they never intended to help in the first place. (Let’s point out that the other way is to say “NO, I cannot help you.” Or even, “No, I don’t want to help you.”
When you or I promise to do something or to be somewhere and we blow off our promise, guess what happens? Someone else is left to pick up the slack. And most of the time that person remembers who did not fulfill their promise. When people know we profess to be a Christian, God’s reputation becomes tainted because of us.
So, what do we do? First, we must fill our minds with the truth. In other words we need to be Scripture saturated people. The old saying is true: the best way to be aware of lies is to be so familiar with the truth that you recognize the lie immediately. One of the reasons this is so important is because the first person we lie to is us.
- We tell ourselves that we are not as bad as most people; but we are just as separated from God as the next person and we are just as helpless apart Jesus. We all come to Him the same way: by an act of His grace.
- We tell ourselves that we aren’t hurting anybody by what we are saying and doing. Yet we know from our own experience that we have been hurt by what others say and do.
- We tell ourselves that we “didn’t mean it”. Most of the time we said exactly what we meant. When it didn’t turn out well we try to bail ourselves out by lying. Sometimes we even say, “I swear to you that I didn’t mean any harm.” The truth is, we didn’t mean to have our intentions exposed.
- We tell ourselves that “it is not my problem” or “I am not the one at fault”. But many of these problems ARE our problem. And almost all the time we share blame for things that go wrong. We don’t’ think we are selfish, but we are.
The Bible, if we pay attention, has a way of cutting through the lies we tell ourselves. God tells us the truth and then offers us the power of the Holy Spirit to change.
Second, we must make a conscious effort to be truth-tellers. Twisting truth to suit our purposes or to cover up our actions is so pervasive, so common, that we have to work hard to consciously tell the truth. We need to remind ourselves that lying may get us out of trouble (for now) but it is not the way for a child of God to act. God is a Truth-telling God and as His children, we should likewise tell the truth. If we are going to wear the name “Christian” we must accept the fact that we are held to a higher standard.
Third we need to work on eliminating even socially acceptable deception. This involves even things like exaggeration (unless people know you are exaggerating). We exaggerate when we make our accomplishments bigger than they really were; or we report we were much more witty in what we said than we actually were. Sometimes we even say we did something or said something that was actually said by someone else. It is a common practice; we all do it; but it is a step away from letting our “yes” be “yes” and our “No” be “No”.
We need to stop making vows we have no intention of keeping. Wouldn’t it be refreshing (and probably eye-opening) if couples chose their vows on the basis of what they were really committed to doing? Wouldn’t it be great if people who promised to be faithful members of the church actually followed through? Wouldn’t it be fantastic if everyone was actually paying their taxes truthfully as they swear?
When people ask us question we need to answer truthfully rather than merely telling them what they want to hear.
Little things add up. Small lies lead to bigger lies which result in a corrupt character. Do you remember the ads a number of years ago when you actually earned interest for your savings? It was pointed out that if you saved so many dollars as a youth each year and continued to do that during your lifetime, when you reached a certain age you would be quite wealthy.
The same holds true here. If we can be people of our word in little things as well as big things, if we continue to tell the truth in all things, letting our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no”, then after a while, you will have the reputation as a person of integrity. In other words, people will begin to see Jesus in you.