16 February, 2014 ––6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
SAY EITHER 'YES' or 'NO'
The Sermon on the Mount is a picture of what people do who live in this world while giving allegiance to the kingdom––the rule––of God. In this reading Jesus addresses several issues where the Pharisees had built rules around God's laws to make themselves look good. Jesus then shows what these laws truly mean as God's kingdom invades this sinful world. Jesus speaks to murder, adultery, divorce, oaths and revenge. In all of these, the point is that it’s possible to use God’s laws as more of an exercise in self-justification than having a true understanding of God's concerns.
It is possible to look at each of these issues individually and do just what the Pharisees did all those years ago. We can make fine distinctions and legislate, and in so doing make ourselves appear wise and pious. Yet by ourselves we cannot obey this Sermon on the Mount. Admitting this is a great first step of spiritual obedience. God has to work these things out in our lives through his Holy Spirit.
It is in that context we need to consider what Jesus says about our speech. After such topics as murder, adultery and divorce, we might wonder why and how something so common as human speech patterns gets so much attention. Why do the words we use carry the same level of concern with Jesus as the big, bad sins?
The Bible has a lot to say about human speech. James comments on the way the tongue––such a small part of the body––is able to create such enormous havoc. In another place, Jesus said that our speech––every idle word––would be one of the standards by which we are judged. The Commandments warn against using God's name in any casual or dismissive way. We regularly pray hallowed be Thy name.
Consider what Jesus was saying about oaths. The obvious meaning should be “keep the promises you have made.” But there was a loophole for the Pharisees––it made a difference what one swore by. If you made an oath to the Lord, than by all means keep it. But if you swore by something lesser, then breaking your word was an option. The motivation was rationalization and permissiveness because human nature wants an easy way out.
Let's think more about that in the context of our speech. It is not necessarily wrong to take an oath. There are various examples of oaths (or vows) in the Scriptures. Abraham had his servant vow to find the right wife for Isaac. Jacob had Joseph give an oath that he would not leave Jacob's bones in Egypt. David and Jonathan had a vow of friendship between them.
Why do people need to supplement their speech with “I swear it's true” or “I swear to God....”? Too often it’s because our own word is not likely to be trusted or we think we need to enhance our image by verbal braggadocio. Swearing is usually a poor expression of our own dishonesty and personal weakness. The reason Jesus says “don't swear” is because he calls us to be like him. When we are living unto Jesus there's nothing to cause others to question our truthfulness or our worth. Simply let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no.
As I was preparing this sermon, one of this week’s readings in the Liturgy was from Ephesians. It’s one way St Paul applies today’s Gospel: Never let evil talk pass your lips; say only the good things men need to hear, things that will really help them.... Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ (4:29–32).
Let's take these words to heart. Allow honesty to have full effect in your life because you belong to Jesus and because you want to be like God, whose character is Truth. You will not need to say, "I swear to God" or "cross my heart" or "with my hand on the Bible." You can be a person who says “yes” and people will know it is yes; you can say “no” and people will know it's no. Your speech can be seasoned with grace. It will be because Jesus Christ is Lord in your life. Nothing is greater.