Mean What You Say

November 3, 2011

My weekly Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount continues. This week’s topic is found in Matthew 5:33-37, on the taking of oaths. To 21st century eyes, it is a strange passage, but with a little digging into Jewish context, its message is surprisingly challenging. First, the text:

33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

The application of this teaching branches in two directions: swearing an oath and making promises (or vows). The two are brought together when Jesus addresses taking of oaths as a way of bolstering one’s promises. Vows were a very serious matter in Israel. It was understood that even the really dumb ones must be fulfilled, as was the case with Jephthah’s rash vow that cost his daughter her life in Judges 11.

The Rabbis had a convoluted method for “interpreting” the fine points of a vow and offered these as loopholes to the people (Mishnah, Shevuot, 3). In the movie Truman Show, Truman suspects that his whole life is not what it seems. (What he doesn’t know is that his life, contained in a made-up world, is televised 24/7 as the ultimate reality show. All the figures in his life are actors.) One clue that sets him on his quest for the truth is found in his wedding picture. His wife, he notices, has her fingers crossed behind her back on their wedding day! With fingers crossed a person supposedly invalidates a promise being made: “I don’t really mean it.”

So Jesus is exhorting here, let your “Yes” be a true “Yes”; let your “No” be a real “No.” In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say.

And you don’t have to buttress your promises with oaths, as in “I swear by the heavens that [this] is true.” If you are telling the truth, you do not have to swear by anything. And besides, Rabbis, Jesus says, don’t play games by swearing in the name of something else big and important, like heaven, earth, or yourself, because all these things are part of God’s creation. This is tantamount to swearing in God’s name (which is strictly forbidden by the Third Commandment), since it all refers back to him anyway. In this case Jesus is teaching that oaths add nothing to validate one’s statements. Does swearing with one’s lips somehow overcome a deceptive heart? No! But a pure heart with characteristic integrity requires no oath to guarantee the truth of one’s statements.

So Jesus is exhorting us to let your “Yes” be a true “Yes”; let your “No” be a real “No.” In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say. You don’t have to add anything to make yourself believable, if your character is trustworthy.

So what does this have to do with the PCUSA?  Everything. All church officers answer nine constitutional questions, found in the Book of Order W-4.4003, that govern their belief and behavior as servants of the gospel. [The church does not use the word “vows” to describe these questions, but they are promises nonetheless and seal a person’s ordination for life.] Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount instructs all who answer the ordination questions to consider carefully the commitment before making it. Do not cross your fingers behind your back as you say yes to the authority of Scripture, or yes to the adoption of the Confessions, or yes to furthering the peace, unity, and purity of the church, or most importantly, yes to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Do not renegotiate the meaning of words or deconstruct the language of the questions to suit your own meaning. Despite postmodernism, the PCUSA still has a heritage and a lexicon, and words mean something. Say “Yes” or “No,” but do not mess with the intended meaning of our confessional and constitutional texts.

The whole point of truth telling and integrity is to demonstrate trustworthiness. One cannot think of a more important qualification for ministry than to be people of the Word and people whose “word is their bond.” So let the church see the kerfuffles ahead as a great opportunity to define the meaning of words, to agree to those definitions as the basis for debate or promise, and then be honest with our “yes” or “no” as to what they require.

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One Response to “Mean What You Say”

  1. Jake Horner Says:

    This raises an interesting question. If I swear that Scripture is authoritative for life (Q 3) and that I will be guided by the confessions (Q 4) then can I honestly say that I will work for the peace, unity, and purity of the church (Q 5)? It seems to me that under our current polity those three are in conflict. Perhaps one could work for two of the three — either peace and unity, or purity and unity, but peace and purity seem to be mutually exclusive at this point.

    I wonder how an ordaining body would view the claim of a scruple on this point?

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