“Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 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 what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” Matthew 5:33-37
After Jesus finishes with the subjects of lust, adultery, and divorce, He takes up the subject of the human tongue.
How much of our well-being as humans depends upon truth-telling by the tongue. When shopping for a pound of hamburger and the butcher hands you a package, how would it be to get home and find a quarter pound of pork? What’s it like to make an appointment at 8 a.m. and your associate doesn’t show up until 8:45? And what about business contracts? “Send 10,000 dozen socks at 31 cents each by May 1. I will pay in full by July 1.” You do, but he doesn’t. Or we stand here and say to a missionary, “You take your end of the rope and go down into the darkness and bring the light. We’ll stay here and hold our end of the rope.” But we seldom give or pray, and within a year drift to another church and promptly forget the missionary.
And what about our oath here at the chancel before God in marriage? “I take thee in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or for worse, till death us do part.” Inside two years we’re ready to quit the marriage. And think how vital it is to take the witness stand and promise to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
In the text Christ addresses the issue of the human tongue in his day. He points up how sinfully out of control one dimension of the tongue had gotten– swearing.
There were two sorts of swearing in the Lord’s day– binding and unbinding.
A binding oath occurred when one used God’s name in a promise.
“As God is my witness, I swear. . .”
“As Jehovah sees me, I promise. . .”
“I thee wed in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
“I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me God.”
The idea was that the use of God’s name lends strength to our words. And by invoking God’s name, God Himself became a partner in the deal.
Ah! But the Jews were clever! They’d developed evasive swearing. If one made an oath without using God’s name, the promise was unbinding.
“By heaven, it’s true!”
“I swear to you by Jerusalem!”
“I stand on my mother’s grave and pledge to you. . .”
Jewish businessmen had swearing down to a fine art. And if you weren’t up on the subtleties of it, there were those who’d take advantage of you. We call it getting the short shrift, being shafted, being “had.” As such, in Christ’s day, Jewish businessmen had a bad reputation. You counted your fingers after you shook their hands. As Paul wrote of the Jews in Romans 2: 24, “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” It’s hard to believe in the God of one who has swindled you.
In the midst of His sinful society Jesus stood up for a greater righteousness. “You can’t cut God out!” He said. The Lord is everywhere! He won’t be marginalized in any of your deals! Jesus said, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? So he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.” (Matthew 23:16-22).
A Simple Yes or No
So, Jesus says obfuscating business contracts with clever language and swearing is a waste of breath. It is evil.
Roman historian, Josephus, wrote, “They that cannot be believed without swearing are already condemned.” Make your words count. Let your pledge be clear. A simple “Yes” or “No” will do. And by your integrity you’ll never need to buttress your language.
Wow! Do we ever need to mature here ourselves! In the Book of Exodus 20:7, God asks us not to take His name in vain.” “In vain” means emptily, insincerely, with a lack of reality. So, how does our language miss the mark here?
One way we do it is by taking the sacred and lessening its value with calloused use. Reducing God’s name to a swear word, a casual flippant exclamation. Our halls at school echo with it. Movies scream divine words turned obscenity. And our private conversations are littered with it.
The result is we’ve destroyed reverence. We’ve trivialized God by frivolous use of language.
Profanity by definition is simply this– it is trying to establish my authority at the expense of God’s glory.
During the American Civil War, President Lincoln rounded a corner in the White House and bumped into a soldier. Both were knocked to the floor. The soldier got up cursing foully. Mr. Lincoln listened and then chided softly, “My young man, there is something wrong with you on the inside.”
One thing wrong is a poor vocabulary. To the profane it is hot as hell, cold as hell, slow as hell, hard as hell, fast as hell, raining like hell. Come! Come, now! Really? Where are your powers of description?
Furthermore, profanity reveals not just a poor vocabulary, it identifies a lack of self-control. When our rights are violated and we respond with an ugly stream of obscenities, where is our poise? Where is our purity?
If you squeeze a tomato, what comes out? Tomato juice. And when Christians come under pressure, what comes out is what’s in us. Obscenities are always disappointing. But Jesus is always a sign of inner maturity.
A second way we void our word is in lip service.
The bane of religion is that talk is easy, behavior is not. Jesus said of Israel, “This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me.” (Mt. 15:8).
We call Him “Father,” but do we act like His child? We call Him Lord, but do we act like His servant? We join a church promising the sacrifice of our lives, but really mean, “As it is convenient.” We vow in marriage “to love, honor, and cherish” but mean to do as we please.
And in the end our words come to mean so very little. And what Jesus is saying, tongue-in-cheek, in the text, is that Christians who speak by the yard and perform by the inch, should be dealt with by the foot.
Yet another means we destroy truth is with lying words.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16).
Satan was the first liar. (Genesis 3). Then Cain picked up the habit. (Genesis 4). Now lying is widespread and an art form.
One sees it in the supermarket. “Jumbo Shrimp.” “Giant Sized.” Extra Fancy.”
One sees it in little white lies. Like the sign in a Chapel Hill bar: “Charges for telephone answering service.” “Just left – 25 cents. On his way – 50 cents. Not here – $1.00. And, Who? $5.00.”
Then there is bribery. A news cartoon shows a Navy ship with the caption, “The best ship that consultant costs, lobbying fees, entertainment write offs, kickbacks and political pay offs can buy.”
Don’t forget half truths. One purchases a huge box of cereal, only to get home and find it two thirds full. The fine print on the box explains, “Sold by weight, not volume, contents may have settled in shipping.”
And, of course, there’s the out and out lie, recreating the truth to fit your advantage. I overheard a teen aged shop clerk say to her loitering friend, “I was an hour late coming in last night. So I locked my keys in the car and called my dad to come get me so I wouldn’t get in trouble.”
We could go on and on with gossip, slander, even conspiracy of silence. But the point is clear– we’ve a culture awash in untruth, lies, and scandal. The result is a growing cynicism, a building chaos of confusion, a snarled legal system, an insecurity, a societal breakdown.
In 1723 Maryland passed a law against lying. For the first infraction, the offender was bored through the tongue with an awl and fined 20 pounds. The second offense was public flogging and six months in jail. The third offense earned death without benefit of clergy.
Obviously our forefathers along with Jesus respected the importance of truth in society. They took seriously the power of the tongue to corrupt. And it is time we do so, too! Let your yes be yes and your no be no, Jesus said.
If you read the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, you’ll discover one body part that is so unruly God gives two laws to govern it. The tongue. Yet Acts 2 teaches that on Pentecost it was the Holy Spirit who seized Peter’s denying tongue, yes, even his profane tongue, and used it to proclaim the gospel.
There is hope.
We can’t cure our tongues in our own strength. Yet God can. Peter is living proof. Let’s be that proof, too, in our generation as our words come to mean something.
Jesus, help! Take my tongue and fix it! Amen.