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July 16, 2017

“Is Your Word Just Words?”

Matthew 5:33-37


Today’s section from the Sermon on the Mount seems to be a about swearing, you know “colorful language.” I mentioned to the Bible study group last Tuesday that when the guys who were working on the floors at our home found out I was a pastor, they followed all of their cuss words with things like “Oops. Sorry.” Or “Don’t mean to offend.”  They have obviously never sat with me to watch an Oakland Raider football game on television, or they would know that I have said a few of those words myself. In actuality, this passage is about oath taking, or as the dictionary defines it, “A formal promise to fulfill a pledge.” (American Heritage Dictionary)At first glance, this seems like a pretty low bar to clear compared with the last couple of weeks of Jesus’ teachings being on murder, anger, lust and divorce…What in the world does Jesus have against taking an oath and why? Furthermore, how does that apply to us today?

I’ve sworn a few oaths in my life. I can remember swearing an oath to Cub Scouts when I joined a pack in Rancho Cordova. “ I promise to do my  best, to do my duty, to God and to my country, to help other people and obey the law of the pack.” I was a good Cub Scout, and advanced to Weblos before we moved. But I didn’t continue with scouts when we arrived in Vallejo a few years later. I made an oath about my faith at Cordova Presbyterian church in 1973, proclaiming my allegiance to Christ as I became a member. I think I’ve done pretty well with that oath, as I am now celebrating my 23rd year of ordained ministry. I promised to be a faithful youth elder when I joined the session at the age of 15 at Vallejo First Presbyterian church. I was pretty faithful for a year or so, but as teenager social life called,(girls, cars, girls, etc) I found it hard to attend all of those Christian Education and session meetings. I didn’t do so well with that oath. The next oath I remember taking was when I answered all of the questions asked of me before becoming ordained. There is quite a laundry list in our book of Order.  The questions are the same asked of elders and deacons, with a couple of exceptions. One of my favorites is, “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?” One of the hardest is, “Do you promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church?” And I can recall taking an oath before a judge back in 2006, when I testified on behalf of the church preschool at my last call in Fort Bragg, Ca regarding an embezzlement trial against one of the teachers. When I was sworn in by the court officer, I was asked if I promised to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth- Now I was expecting to place my right hand on the Bible, and then say, “So help me God.” But things have changed in the courts. I just mumbled yes and then sat and answered all the questions directed to me truthfully. More recently, when I am speaking with someone and I say something that may be difficult to believe or hard to prove, I have been known to say, “I swear on a stack of Bibles!”

Did I do anything wrong in swearing those oaths? At worst I didn’t follow through with all of my commitments when it came to scouting and serving as a youth elder, but my heart was in the right place when I spoke those oaths.

Why does Jesus tell us to stop taking oaths all together and just let our answers be yes or no? Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ reasoning here, and some history about oath taking to see if we can find the answer.

This section in Matthew’s gospel shows Jesus basically reinterpreting or in Jesus’ words fulfilling old testament laws -on murder, adultery, divorce, now no oath taking or swearing, and no retaliation (no eye for an eye-as we will look at next week)- this particular section appears to be connected specifically to Leviticus 19:12 , the second set of the Ten commandments, where God tells Moses, “You shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God.” So maybe Jesus is just fulfilling one of the commandments in some way then?

Let’s take a look at the history of oath taking to see if there is more. Oath taking was an important part of early Hebrew culture. An oath in that culture was a statement made by someone which gave assurance that they spoke the truth, or obligated themselves to perform a certain task. God was invoked as the guarantor of the oath. The Hebrew word for oath, shaba’  שָׁבַע comes from the number 7, a sacred number for Hebrew culture. Do we have examples of oath taking in the Old Testament? Yes.  When Jonathon was negotiating with his father Saul to spare David’s life, Saul replied, “As the Lord lives, he shall not be put to death.” (1 Samuel 19:6). Oath and curse were not far apart, and both could be invoked with God attached. For example, in 1 Samuel 3:17 when Eli was interrupted in his sleep by Samuel, and Eli understood that Samuel had a message from God for him, Eli said, “What was it that God told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me.” There are many examples of oath taking in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Is there anything wrong with any of the oaths in scripture? Well, Saul didn’t put David to death, but he nearly killed him at least once, and hunted for him when he fled for his life. Perhaps there is something about not following through with oaths that Jesus takes issue with?

I think the key to interpretation is in verse 37. Jesus says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘no’; anything more than this comes from evil.”   Jesus wants us to speak the truth, always. A person of truth will not need to add force to their words by an appeal to God or anything God has created; they will not need to swear by anything, since their word can be relied upon as truth, as it stands.

Lies come from the evil one, who is also called “The Father of lies,” (John 8:44) and if we have told lies to others, even swearing on a stack of Bibles might not make them believe us anymore. Jesus declares that when we are truthful, oaths are not necessary- Basically, it comes down to this-is your word just words, or does it really mean something? Jesus wants us to be truthful in what we say, to mean what we say, and to follow through with our promises. When we fail to do so, we dishonor God’s name and can find ourselves full of shame and guilt.

Consider Peter, one of Jesus’ main disciples-passionate, fiery and flawed. He agreed to follow Jesus, to become one of his disciples and fish for people. Yet when confronted in the courtyard by a servant girl, who claimed he was a follower of Jesus, first he denied it, trying to save his own skin. Then when accused again, he denied it with an oath, “I swear I do not know this man!”. When those in the courtyard detected his accent he swore a curse, probably, May God do such and such to me if I am lying”, and then another oath, “I swear I do not know the man!”(Matthew 26:74) Then as the cock crowed, Peter ran away in shame and wept bitterly. So Peter gives us a poor example of what not do to. Peter told a real bald face lie, three times. Why did he do so?

In the June edition of the National Geographic, the cover story was, “Why We Lie.” It was a fascinating article on the science behind our complicated relationship with the truth. According to the article, written by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, there are four reasons why we lie.44% of the time it is to promote ourselves- to gain financial benefit, gain benefits other than money,  shape a positive image of ourselves, or make others laugh. 36% of the time we lie to protect ourselves-to cover up a mistake, escape or evade others. Peter’s lies fall into this category. 11% of the time it is to impact others- to hurt others, uphold social roles, avoid rudeness, or help someone. And only 4% of the time are our motives for lying unknown and at times pathological.

I held onto one lie in particular for a number of years in order to promote myself and shape a positive image of myself, and it had to do with football. You see, I really wanted to be a football player when I got into high school. As a kid I used to reenact slow motion plays of great Oakland Raider touchdowns. I wanted to be a wide receiver or a punter.  So I took note of when camp was to begin and then went on a 3 week mountain climbing vacation with my uncle, looking forward to capturing glory on the gridiron upon my return. Right after I left, unbeknownst to me and a number of others, the start of football camp for Vallejo High was moved up two weeks. By the time I and around 20 others got there, pads and jersey numbers had already been assigned. I tried out for 3 straight days, and almost made it as the team punter. But in the end, I got cut, along with all of the other guys who thought the original date was the start of camp. I was crushed. My dream of playing for the Silver and Black was over.

But, as I continued in life and graduated from high school, I told my friends that in fact I had made the high school team, was a punter and the fourth or fifth string quarterback.

By the time I got into college, I talked about my time for running the 40 yard dash with a guy who actually had played linebacker at Cal. I was in way over my head. When I said that I ran something like 6 or 7 seconds with pads on, he seemed skeptical. The longer and longer I held onto that lie, the bigger and bigger it got. Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said, “A lie is like a snowball. The longer it is rolled on the ground, the larger it becomes.”

Stories about celebrities being caught in lies that grow like snowballs are rampant these days. You all remember the story about NBC former national news anchor Brian Williams from a couple of years ago? How in the world did NBC News let its biggest star and face of its division run around America for more than ten years telling stolen valor lies, lie-lies, whoppers, white lies, exaggerations, and — if you want to be charitable — embellishments?

Apparently, as long as Brian Williams’ lies helped build the NBC News brand and the “Nightly News” ratings, nobody in charge chose to say anything. Once he was caught by others, NBC News finally took action while telling a big fat lie of its own — the lie that NBC News didn’t know about this the whole time.

Williams said a number of things that were either proven lies, suspected lies, disputed by on-the-record eye witnesses, or contradicted by Williams himself.  I am listing just a few. He lied about being hit by an RPG while travelling in a helicopter in Iraq, said he had privileged information about Seal Team 6, the team that took out Osama bin Laden, and even flew into Baghdad with them. He lied about being at the Berlin Wall when it came down, and lied about shaking hands with the Pope. He even lied about rescuing two puppies from a fully involved house fire. That got to be one big snowball of lies, didn’t it? After a long hiatus, he eventually came back to NBC, no longer as a news anchor on the national stage. He was at first a breaking news correspondent on MSNBC, and after a year or so began making appearances on the Rachel Maddow show. Eventually he worked his way back into the graces of NBC and got his own hourly show to host on MSNBC. But how the mighty anchor has fallen, due to his lies.

Then of course we have the current political mess, with a president who continually challenges what truth is and is not through his tweets, surrounded with spoke persons who have come up with phrases such as “alternative facts.”… And one could well argue that this is just part of a long tradition on the political stage in this nation. Politicians and celebrities seem to lie all the time. Shame on them! Why we would NEVER do such a thing!!

It is so easy to wag our heads at others, to “tsk tsk” at their downfall or their half-truths whilst not paying attention to our own behavior. The lies that are rampant among celebrities, among politicians, are also among us here in our relationships with others, and they are causing irreparable harm. Trust is eroded. Relationships are harmed and weakened. Friendships and reputations are destroyed. As the apostle James wrote, “The tongue is a small member of the body, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5-6) What good are oaths or swearing in such a world?

The main point of today’s lesson from Jesus is to tame our tongues and to be truthful, and not be led instead by evil. Jesus wants our word to be as good as gold, and to do the things we say we are going to do- not so easy after all, when we really are honest with ourselves. 17th century English poet John Milton wrote, “Hard are the ways of truth, and rough to walk.” But Jesus is calling us today to walk in truth, hard as it may be. May we go from this place with clear and truthful intention. May our word be more than just words. May our “yes” mean “yes”, and our “no” mean “no”.  When led by Christ’s teachings, nothing else is necessary. Alleluia! Amen.

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