Jesus’ Swearing Problem

When I was a kid we had a foolproof way to determine the truth from lies, and we knew that when we invoked this the promises and words that followed would be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This method was called the “pinkie swear.” Somehow we attributed power to this little ritual that said once we do this the truth would be spoken. When the “pinkie swear” went from being something only used on occasion to a frequent usage of our daily lives it became obvious that we had trouble trusting what we said. We began to realize just how worthless the “pinkie swear” was, because for some reason it implied that for the most part our words were not trustworthy and that it required some kind of ritual for us to be honest. Eventually we also figured out that the person who we most had to invoke a “pinkie swear” with only had a very loose association with truthfulness and there were some people we never had to use “pinkie swears” with because we knew that whatever they said was the truth. Later on I learned the word integrity to describe what I saw in those people. When you hear the word “integrity” what comes into your mind? Just shout it out. All of these things have a thread in common and that is in living a life that is in harmony with itself. When our minds are not divided and every aspect of our lives reflects the truth of who we are, we are living integrated lives. When we live double lives and are one person in one setting and another outside that setting we are living a life of disintegration. We inhabit a disintegrated society in which different parts of our lives are compartmented off from each other and those divisions affect the decisions we make and the words we say. Jesus saw the same struggles in his own day and saw that there were dividing attitudes that led to actions which violate our integrity and he gives his disciples instruction in one area that breaks through the artificial divisions we set up in our minds.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. Matthew 5:33-37

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has consistently raised the bar on what is expected of his followers. Instead of focusing on sin management Jesus moves our focus off of sin and on to God, where it belongs. This requires a transformation in us, one that takes the ways we have divided our own minds and unifies them in pursuit of God. In the Friends Church we acknowledge that our testimony is affected by our integrity. If the words of our mouths about unimportant things aren’t always true, how can we expect people to accept the most important truth of reconciliation with God through Jesus from us? Our faith and practice says:

We believe that integrity of speech and action honors Christ as it advances truth and, therefore, should characterize our social and business relationships. In allegiance to Christ’s command, we refrain from swearing oaths and from profanity of speech. We consider integrity a mark of Christian holiness.[i]

Our witness is damaged when our words and actions don’t match up.

It isn’t always easy to tell when we have faltered in this area so Jesus gives us some signs of our aim being off the mark. The first is that difficulty we have all run into of baptizing our personal opinions and attitudes in biblical language and speaking of them as if they are straight from the mouth of God.  I call it playing the “God Card.” There was a man in a church that I was part of who was convinced that God was calling him to become an elder in the church. The elders and pastors had a distinct unease with this idea, mainly because the man was a relatively new Christian who had an overly forceful personality, and this was in New York! The elders rightly discerned that the man was not mature enough in his faith to become an elder and they were proved right when, instead of investing in the development of his faith, the man sowed discord and split the church. Invoking God did not magically make the words the man said right and enforceable. Swearing by God or the dimension he dwells in that we call heaven cannot make a lie true, even if we really want to believe it.

In Jesus’ time it was common to invoke the land or capital city of your nation that the words you speak are true. Now this probably isn’t as big an issue for us since I don’t think anyone in our nation associates truth with anything that happens in Washington DC. However, it is important for us to look a little deeper to see what Jesus is getting at. Jesus is teaching us that oaths, no matter what they are on or by, are only as binding as the integrity of the person swearing them. In other words oaths are “pinkie swears” for grown-ups. At this point my understanding of this teaching is Jesus saying to his disciples: “Look guys. If you need to invoke an outside authority to make it appear that you are telling the truth, or to give your words extra weight, you have a reputation problem. It will be better for you to remain silent until you have earned a reputation for truthfulness and honest dealings.” There are no shortcuts to integrity. We can’t appropriate someone else’s and say that just because we are connected to this nation or this God or this people group that has a reputation for integrity we don’t have to do the hard work of having integrity ourselves. We have to let our own personal “Yes.” Really mean “Yes.” And not “I am agreeing with you for the sole purpose of ending this conversation and will quickly forget any promises I make so that I don’t have to deal with you or make you sad or mad by saying “No.” It is amazing the meaning we can fit into one little word. When we say ‘Yes” it must mean: “I wholeheartedly agree and am ready to follow through on what I say.”

Of course there is that other word that causes most of us to struggle. It only has two letters, and our children seem to have the ability to speak it with ease. This is one of those times we might have a lesson to learn from them. We really want to be loved and we love the people around us and it is so hard to deny someone you love what they are asking for, even when we can’t give it. Saying “no” is a very difficult thing, but is absolutely important for maintaining our integrity. If we are to be whole, we must say no to those things that we don’t have the ability or desire to give. We need to be honest with ourselves that sometimes we agree to do things that we don’t have the time or energy for because we want others to think highly of us. This is really natural, and it takes some intention on our part to look inward and know what it is we really feel about something before we open our mouths to agree or disagree with it. This is not easy for any of us, sometimes our mouths engage before our mind and we end up saying “Yes” and living “No.”  Our “No” must be an honest and loving “No.” This all takes some work on our part, not only in matching the words we say to our actions, but in communicating why we say “Yes” or “No.” Those one word answers require some unpacking on our part in order for others to gain understanding. If we let people know why we are so happy to say yes or why we have to regretfully say no, it builds up the relationships we are so afraid of losing. We also have to practice accepting the “No” of others. If we want others to receive our “No” with grace we need to receive “No” with grace.

I want to say that acting with integrity makes everything wonderful and great. That a life of integrity is carefree and easy, but unfortunately the evidence is against me. Quite often our integrity will be the cause of suffering, because someone really wanted that “Yes” and wasn’t prepared to take “No” for an answer. One of my heroes in the faith is a Dutch woman named Corrie Ten Boom. In World War Two when her hometown was invaded by the Germans she and her family hid Jews and helped them escape the concentration camps. She knew that by living out her “No” she could pay a heavy price for her integrity, and she did. She was eventually caught and sent to the very concentration camps she had been helping Jews escape. She survived, and was one of the missionaries that went into Germany to minister to the very people who had imprisoned her. She didn’t just say “No” as a pretext to push the Germans away, but her “No” and her actions were a sign of love. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is say “No.” Just ask any parent.

When we are careful with our commitments and honor the words we say by matching our actions to them, we actually increase the amount of good in the world and decrease the amount of evil. When we set our mark on God and let that point of aim guide us our actions and words will match up and the good news will be truly seen as good.

Our time of open worship begins with 5 minutes of silence in which we place our hearts and minds in God’s hands. Today I invite you to join me in asking God to help us overcome the ways our life may be divided, to give us the courage and love to say “No” when we need to, to give us the peace we need to say “Yes,” and the wisdom to discern when our “Yes” or “No” would lack integrity.

Let us pray.




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