Sitting on the Mountainside-Studies in The Sermon on the Mount

Day 24: “Oaths” 09.04.2018

Matthew 5:33-37 (NIV) “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 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 even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

In the classic movie “A Man for All Seasons” Sir Thomas More is imprisoned for his refusal to support the marriage of Henry the Eighth to his mistress Anne Boleyn. His friend the Duke of Norfolk visits him and suggests that he simply take the oath of allegiance. He argues that it doesn’t matter. More should just say the words. But Sir Thomas replies, “If I heeded not the taking of an oath I should do that and be gone from here!” In other words, taking an oath was a matter of honesty and he refused to lie just to be set free.

The word “oath” in English means a solemn promise often calling upon a witness, even a Divine witness, to attest to the promise implicit in the oath. Thus, we sometimes hear people say that very careless statement “Oh I swear to God!” As if God would act to punish or prove the oath-taker guilty if the person failed to deliver an action as promised.

In modern law, a witness is sworn in to give testimony. Lying under oath is a felony considered perjury if it can be proven the witness has sworn falsely about a topic. In any case, there’s plenty of room for shading the truth and deceiving those who listen. And there is plenty of room for hubris. The kind of pride that demonstrates overwhelming arrogance. But what did Jesus mean and why did he mention this matter to his disciples sitting on the mountainside? We look closely ….

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’”

The words that our Lord used were literally “Do not swear falsely.” Interesting that the Old Testament did not really forbid oaths or swearing as to the truthfulness of a matter. Consider:

Leviticus 19:12 (NIV) “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.”

Numbers 30:1-2 (NIV) “Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: ‘This is what the LORD commands: When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.’”

Deuteronomy 23:21 (NIV) “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin.”

We can easily see from these and other passages that oath-taking was not forbidden or unheard-of. Yet, Jesus was saying to his own disciples “You really don’t need to be in the business of taking oaths!” Why? A couple of reasons.

Oath-taking can be rooted in impulsiveness that can bring horrible consequences. Who can forget a man named Jephthah found in the Book of Judges? He went into battle against the King of Ammon. The Spirit of God had come upon him and his victory was assured. Yet, he made a rash vow:

Judges 11: (NIV) “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: ‘If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.’”

He won the battle after his unnecessary vow. Then we read:

“When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter.”

Scholars sometimes suggest that perhaps he did not keep that vow. But that would have been extremely bad behavior in the ancient world. We see the same thing in the Gospel of Mark. King Herod made a rash vow to the daughter of Herodias after she danced at his banquet. In all likelihood, hers was a fabulous sensual offering and the Godless King was overcome with excitement. We read:

Mark 6:22-28 (NIV) “When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.’ And he promised her with an oath, ‘Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ ‘The head of John the Baptist,’ she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: ‘I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

John was in prison no doubt downstairs in that very palace. We read this and think that Herod should have just said “No I can’t give you that. That’s not in the offer!” But he did not. So important was his vow that we read:

“The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So, he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.”

So, where does this leave us? Simply realizing that oaths can be very prideful. Usually, we should speak with honest humility. And yes, it’s ok to say the Pledge of Allegiance or swear to tell the truth in court. We make vows in weddings all the time. What Jesus is saying to his own is that we should just speak truthfully. And if we do make a vow, it should be understood first by us that we cannot keep it without God’s help.

As Luther said when the king demanded that he recant his views on the Gospel and the Word of God: “I cannot renounce these writings. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me!”

Blessings! Pastor Alberta

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