The Hard Sayings of Jesus: Do Not Swear At All!

A sermon by Fr. Justin Clemente, delivered to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on August 14, 2022. Part of our ongoing “The Hard Sayings of Jesus” series.

Lessons from I Love Lucy

We’ve had an I Love Lucy renewal in our house as of late. On family movie night we sometimes run into the problem of not actually having a movie worth watching. So, one night we ended up watching episodes of Lucy. It’s amazing how the show holds up – I don’t think you’ll find a funnier sitcom on TV these days!

Our passage today made me think of one particular episode called “The Neighbors.” In it, Ethel and Lucy are spying on two new neighbors. You may remember the scene: they’re staring out the window, binoculars in hand, watching them move in and ogling over their possessions, thinking how rich they must be because of their nice things. Well, their curiosity and envy doesn’t stop there. Because Ethel is the landlord, Lucy knows that she can actually get her into their apartment. Ricky hears of it an expressly says to her: “I do not want you to set foot in that apartment.”

End of story? Lucy begins to consider how she can fulfill Ricky’s pronouncement, but still have a look see at their belongings. She says to herself, “Well, he said don’t set a foot in their apartment. He didn’t say anything about my knees.” Well, before long, and in a way that’s utterly hilarious, she’s not only in the apartment, she is caught in the apartment, and has to disguise herself as a covered chair to escape the apartment without being seen.

Understanding Our Passage: From Lying to Integrity

This helps us to understand something of what Jesus is addressing in our passage today. The context here really is king. When Jesus says (verse 34) “I say to you, Do not take an oath at all,” he is speaking with authority into a time when God’s people were using swearing, not as way to ensure truthfulness, but to escape it. Understanding this helps us to make sense of what Jesus means, in verses 34-36, when he talks about swearing by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and, even, the hairs on our head. What does he mean? Theologian D.A. Carson is helpful here: “One rabbi [from time of our Lord] says that if you swear by Jerusalem, you are not bound by your vow; but if you swear toward Jerusalem, then you are bound by your vow. [So, in this way] the swearing of oaths thus degenerates into terrible rules which let you know when you can get away with lying and deception, and when you can’t.” Sounds closer to today than you might think, right? We live in a time when our trust in words and promises is extremely low and jaded.

Into that context, Jesus speaks his Word and directs his people back to God’s desire for simplicity and integrity of speech. In a setting where people were dividing themselves up, essentially crossing their fingers when convenient, Jesus says all of our words and all our promises are spoken in the presence of God.[i] No matter what we swear on – be it from heaven to hairs on our head, God is intimately involved and present. His positive teaching in verse 37 can be literally translated like this: “let your word be yes yes or no no,” doubled up for emphasis!

That Christians would be known for this was incredibly important for the Early Church (see James 5:12). St. Hilary in the 4th century said, “They who live in the simplicity of the faith have not need to swear, with them ever, what is is, what is not is not; by this their life and their conversation are ever preserved in truth.” In the time we have left, let’s do some practical application.

But first a side note as we transition: some have taken Jesus’ teaching here to mean that a Christian may never take an oath under any circumstance, even for example, in court. That seems to miss the point of what Jesus is saying.[ii] Jesus’ focus in this passage is on integrity and honesty in our everyday lives, and to that we turn.

Looking to Truth & Mercy Incarnate

As we apply the passage, we want to first to look to Jesus and his Gospel.

The Jesus who said, “let what you say be simply yes or no,” (verse 37) is the Truth Incarnate: “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life.” (John 14:6) He is too good be false, and the closer you get him the better he looks. God’s speaking and his doing are utterly and totally consistent. Two examples: 1) God says let there be light! And what happens? There is light. 2) God so loved the world…and what happens? Action: he sends his Son.  More than that, the Son is faithful and true unto death, giving himself over to crucifixion for liars. He takes our sin upon himself, and clothes us in return not with judgment, but covers us completely and fully in the unstained and unspotted garment of his pure righteousness. Christ’s integrity is unparalleled, and he gives it to us.

Examining Ourselves in the Light of Christ’s Integrity

And then we want to turn and examine ourselves in the light of his holiness, knowing we’re called to be conformed to the image of Christ, yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit in our own life. Some questions to think on:

In conversation: Are you prone to stretch the truth, especially to make yourself look better? Or to just have something to say? To pretend to know something when you don’t?

In the workplace: Are you known as a person who words reflect the One who words were always consistent? Are your words God-centered in the way Jesus says they should be?

In the home: Children & teens: are you trying to avoid obeying the words of your parents’  without looking disobedient or do you seek to obey them from the heart?

You know what I’m talking about here. For example, “My parents said I can’t eat the candy, but they didn’t say I can’t look at the candy and perhaps even lick the candy!”

Why is that one of the main callings in your life right now is to learn to obey your parents (see Ephesians 6:1-3)?

Let me put it to you like this. In my house, we’re big fans of the show “Bluey.” One episode is all about “Promises” – you might even say oaths! The Heeler family realizes that they aren’t living up to their promises to each other. So they commit to keep their promises. There’s a funny back and forth where Bluey, the oldest daughter, realizes that she can use this trick her dad, Bandit, into doing hilarious things – things like acting like a toddler in the middle of the public library. Bandit returns the favor, tricking Bluey into carrying his two boulder-sized books he gets from the library. But in the end, they come to realize that our words (our promises) should be used to build trust. In the closing scene, Bingo, the younger daughter, is stuck up on a jungle gym. Chili, the mom, stands underneath, ready to catch her. Bingo asks, “do you promise?” “Yes, I promise,” Chili answers. And Bingo jumps.

Children, this is why God’s calling in your life right now is to learn to listen, trust, and truly respond with obedience to your parents’ words. Because if you train yourself to listen to your parents’ words now, then you will be ready to listen and trust in God’s Word as you grow – and the benefits and consequences there will be much greater than those on a playground!

Parents: do your children see you honoring the commitments you make: both to them and the Lord? Is your word your bond? Are you demonstrating that you are worth following in your speech? If your children truly followed you in your use of speech, where would it take them? And, we should remember that is Satan himself who is the father of phony words and empty promises (John 8:44).

In the church: We live in a time when fellowship in the Body can dropped on a dime. Promises reneged upon, and relationships damaged because of it.

Do you take seriously the commitments you make in and to the Body of Christ. For example: parish membership. My hope is for everyone to take the step to move from regular attender to parish member. But if our fellowship is to have integrity, it must really mean something. I want to encourage you to review those blessings and responsibilities on our website.

So, let the way we use our words and the promises we make with them speak to our neighbor of and build each other up into the One whose word to us in his Gospel is always “Yes and amen.”

[i] “The Call to Simplicity” by Ian Bentley

[ii]Not to mention the fact that God himself swears in Holy Scripture (Genesis 9:9-17). Also, the Apostle Paul swore by God, too (Romans 1:9). In fact, this was such a matter of debate at the Reformation that Article 39 in the back of your Prayer Book actually addresses this head on and says, “by the way, if you are called on to give testimony under oath, you must do it! But let it be done for the purpose of preserving truth.