I admit to being a little concerned about how I have broken the Sermon on the Mount into the many parts on which I have been and will be posting. Most of my partitions are perfectly sensible. This one I agonized over when I was planning this series, because this reading could be two or three posts, but I didn’t want this series to drag on forever. The reason I agonized is that this reading contains three antitheses—three instances of Jesus saying, “You have heard one thing, but I say to you another.” Each of those antitheses could be a post all its own, but I have elected to lump three of them together. One is on adultery, one is on divorce, and one is on the swearing of oaths. I lumped them together because, at their heart, each of these antitheses is about making promises.
In the movie Mary Poppins, Mary scolds her young charge for making a flippant promise, calling it a “piecrust promise: easily made, easily broken.” Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep, she was saying. But Jesus goes even further. His teachings in these three antitheses involve different kinds of promises. There are basic, piecrust promises, about which he actually says very little. There are oaths, which are sworn, with God as a witness, in order to signify that what one is about to say is the truth—the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And then there are vows, which are more like promises about some future action, but they are undertaken between the vow-maker and God. Let’s start there.
“I, Matthew, take you, Diane, to be my wife; and I promise, before God and these witnesses, to be your loving and faithful husband; in plenty and in want; in joy and in sorrow; in sickness and in health; as long as we both shall live.” That is the vow that I took on the day that Diane and I were married. I was making a promise to Diane, with God as my witness. One month after we were married, I took additional vows—ordination vows. Some of the “constitutional questions” asked during an ordination service are oaths: statements that we swear to be true, and some are vows: promises about the future. The oaths are that:
- I trust in the Lord Jesus Christ my Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- I accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to me.
- I sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and I will be instructed and led by those confessions as I lead the people of God.
The vows that I took are these:
- I will be a minister of the Word and Sacrament in obedience to Jesus Christ under the authority of Scripture and continually guided by our confessions.
- I will be governed by our church’s polity, and I will abide by its discipline. I will be a friend among my colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit.
- I will, in my own life, seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love my neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world.
- I promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church.
- I will seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.
- I will be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith and caring for people. I will be active in government and discipline, serving in the governing bodies of the church, and in my ministry I will try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ.
I take those oaths and vows, as well as my marriage vows, with the utmost seriousness, because I don’t make promises I can’t keep. And yet… Jesus reminds us that our promises, like all our behavior, ought not to be a matter of checking off a list, but a matter of the heart.
The whole law and the prophets, Jesus said, were aiming at one thing, and that was to get people to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves (Matt. 22:37-40). And he said he wouldn’t drop one jot or tittle from the law until it had reached that objective. He knew that the Pharisees would never fulfill the law at the rate they were going, because the purpose of the law was not to enslave people or burden them with rules, but to free them to live in a community of love and mutual care. So he told his listeners that unless their righteousness exceeded that of the Pharisees—that is, unless our righteousness is a matter not only of action, but attitude—they’d never make it in his kingdom. See, the Pharisees had made the law an end in itself, when it was supposed to be the means for building a just and loving society.
Jesus gives concrete examples—and we already considered some of them in previous posts. Here, he gives the example of adultery. Now, please understand that this teaching does not condemn every sexual impulse that a person might have. For heaven’s sake, if that were true, virtually every person on earth would be guilty of adultery. Besides, as my favorite professor and theologian, Andrew Purves, once pointed out, the very first words that Almighty God ever spoke to human beings in the book of Genesis were, “Go, be sexy.” Go, be sexy. Jesus isn’t about to countermand that blessing! He’s simply saying that there’s no difference between committing adultery and the willingness to commit adultery. By the time you’ve finished fantasizing about some other person, you’ve already committed adultery against your own spouse!
Jesus’ illustration of gouged out eyes and chopped off hands is not to be taken literally, either—not by a long shot. But he uses these severe illustrations to show how serious this issue really is. If you had cancer in your eye, you’d have it removed in order to save your life. If you hand developed gangrene, you’d have it amputated in order to save your life. So if your lust for someone threatens to destroy your marriage, Jesus argues, then they ought not to be in your life. Better to lose an acquaintance, or even a friend—or an eye, or a hand—than to break your vow to your spouse.
“And speaking of vows to your spouse,” Jesus went on, “I know that you’ve been taught that you can divorce your spouse and move on to another one whenever you feel like it, but that’s not true. That’s not what God had in mind for marriage at all.
“In fact,” he went on, by way of concluding his argument, “you all seem to be under the mistaken impression that making promises matters at all. Clearly that’s not true, since all the promises in the world don’t prevent you from committing adultery against your spouse or divorcing your spouse so you can have your cake and eat it too.” God’s Kingdom entails something else entirely: truthfulness in all things. Now that the Kingdom of God has come, there is no need for oath swearing, because everything you say should be true all the time. Vows are not necessary, because in the Kingdom of God, people don’t make promises they can’t keep—they can be trusted to do what they say they’ll do.
Jesus’ own brother will teach the same thing, years later (and I wonder where he heard it?) when he writes, “Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (James. 5:12). Don’t say “yes” if you’re not sure you mean yes! The truth of your words is a matter of the heart—and it avails you nothing if you promise to do something noble, and then fail to follow through. Jesus once illustrated this with a parable, saying:
A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.”
He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went.
The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’
The Pharisees said, ‘The first.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Actions speak louder than words. That’s arguably the point of that parable—and the reason why actions speak louder than words is that in this world, people make promises that they don’t keep. But Jesus expects more of those of us who claim his name. “Let your yes mean yes; let your no mean no.” Whether you say yes or you say no, say it like you mean it!
Our Lord Jesus made promises to us—promises which, because he is the Son of our sovereign God, we know to be utterly trustworthy and true. God cannot deal falsely with his people, because his own holiness precludes it. He has promised that because he lives, we also shall live. He has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age.