The next few sections of this series are the chiastic explanations for the beatitude which describes what it means to be pure in heart. We know that the “kardia” (heart/mind) was understood as the mind, or overarching worldview (not emotions), and the result according to Matthew 5:6 is that the “katharōs” (ritually clean or pure) are the ones who will see God.
Taking an oath has a number of meanings. In the absence of credit checking services, borrowers would make vows that were legally binding, but this isn’t the main idea. Making an oath was a way of upping the anti of ones certainty or a way of puffing oneself up making oneself more believable. If you swore on your mother’s grave then you were more serious than if you just swore something to be true about you. If you swore by the offering on the temple, you were really, really serious. (Matthew 23:16-22).
It’s all about our need to be proven right or to look good in front of others. Can you relate?
Taking an oath means almost nothing today. Sure we rail against politicians, officers, doctors, lawyers, priests or teachers who swear to uphold the law, or fulfill their obligations, but we don’t think twice about bankruptcy, divorce, cancelling plans, or making empty promises. We make promises to get in shape, quit a bat habit, get out of debt, but year after year we fail. In our world, “yes” means “maybe” or “probably not.“ This is because we are actually “over-oathed”, over identified, imprisoned.
The true meaning will elude us if we do not access what is happening deep in our “kardia?”
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matthew 5:33-37)
Jesus is once again bringing true meaning to the law by reframing it. Rather than taking an oath and then living under the obligation of it, Jesus is offering something deeper: “Do not take an oath at all…” He is asking us to lay down any need to be right. Forfeit the idea that it all hinges on you. He is inviting us into a freedom that exists when we don’t have performance metrics upon things we cannot control. “You cannot make...” (dúnamai/ “dynamite”- power) “you have no power.”
This passage’s primary bend is toward making sacred oaths to God. So when Jesus says “Do not take an oath at all” it’s really subversive to the religious status quo. He’s revealing that the oath isn’t necessary from God’s standpoint. Oaths are really man made scorecards that are used to distract and over-inflate ourselves. If we avoid the oath, we avoid all the one-ups-manship. It’s a much freer existence. Do you have institutions or systems that are always evaluating you or your commitment to them? Don’t take an oath and see what happens.
The wisdom here liberates us into truth, integrity and authenticity if we have the eyes to see it. While we lack power for most outcomes, we can offer a simple yes or no. Yes and No are responses, not plans. Yes and no are fair evaluations of our present bandwidth and life. Yes and no are the extent of our commitments. And this is where Jesus’ words get really interesting. He says; “Anything more than this comes from evil” the Greek utilizes a definite article “the” rendering it “the evil one.” When people argue if there is a real Devil or Satan or evil being, I find this passage dispels all the years of rock music album art and reveals that the enemy of the soul is our own “kardia” or mindset. The evil one is the ego that has to be proven right. Evil is that part of us that is ever over-promising. All along you thought this was goodness, turns out it’s idolatry.
This is really hard to understand now, but will come into focus in the coming weeks when we examine retaliation and our enemies. The enemy is not the one to which we desire retaliation, it is the out of tune soul with which we must first contend. In the same way we will have to surrender our desire to “get even“, when it comes to oath taking and commitments, we must surrender the outcomes of not over-committing.
Remember we are instructed to live from a simple yes or no with no embellishments. There are many of you who feel saying no is somehow wrong. When I began deconstructing my life I realized that I had way too many commitments and most of them involved church or were linked to my faith somehow. My fundamentalism had a strong malware script running that made me feel like the busier I was, the more successful I was for God and the good work. I became a yes-man, and as a result I became an imprisoned-man. How was I to preach a gospel of freedom from a life that looks like a jail?
When I started saying no, I wasn’t prepared for the pushback. “No, I’m not going to lead that class anymore. No, I’m going to step down from serving as an elder. No, I’m not going to be coming every week here. No, I won’t be giving all my charitable giving here any longer.” No was viewed as a sin. Other pastors resented how I could just step away and liberate my life. But that’s exactly what happened. You can do it too and guess what, it doesn’t mean God will get mad or withhold blessing, or some imaginary shoe will drop. All that will happen is your life will have bandwidth for you to go deeper as all the distractions fade away.
While we lack the power to change what we think is the big thing, we can respond to the biggest thing right now and that ultimately changes everything. Avoiding the oath creates an immediate pivot point in your life. Without the oath, you can’t run with everyone who takes on the pledge, though your ego will feel its missing out. You’ll be marginalized, viewed as unprofitable, or a dissident. When this happens, ask yourself: “Who is judging me so severely?” Immediately you will see that it is institutional power. Yep, its a power play, a guilt trip, a pity party all designed to rope you in deeper than your “yes” or “no” can take you. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Anything beyond yes or no comes from the evil one.”
Avoiding the oath may cause institutional power to press against you, but its powerfully liberating because you realize that avoiding the oath means its impossible for you to over-identify with any system. If frees you to remain identified or named by God. This is living your true self.
So let’s take take a little test. How far can we take this idea? Is buying something on credit taking an oath? What about culturally important oaths such as marriage, swearing in as a judge, officer or doctor? What about the oath in a court room? Is Jesus saying “do not take an oath at all” to all of this? I think wisdom requires us to be careful not to run too far with this.
The main thrust here is our ability to surrender the consequences of not being identified, defined or indexed by our oaths. If we have taken an oath, then be sure that we are expected to uphold it. An oath to the military is a signing away of your freedom for the larger organization. An oath to a spouse is the signing away of your freedom to another person. An oath to purchase goods or services is a signing away of your freedom financially. Oaths are not bad, they have a place in our world, but we must know that our oaths consign our lives and limit our freedoms. We trade our identity and life for the identity and life offered by the institution to which we take an oath. This is why Jesus’ counsel is to be sober minded about it and he subverts convention by suggesting we don’t do it.
Oaths turn into obligations and duty comes from a motivation other than love. Love never obligates, it only compels. Love is higher and more powerful motivator than an oath. Can I invite you to consider this teaching today? Look over your obligations and ask if they are worth it. Maybe you are a “yes” person and need to learn to say “no.” If life is all “have to’s” then you may be over identified with too many institutions. Do you feel powerless to do something about your obligations? Well, each oath is you giving away your power and freedom.
What if you don’t do it? What if you don’t hold it all together? (you can’t anyway-you can’t make a hair black or white…) What are you really afraid of losing? A job? A low-level relationship? A dwelling or a toy? Status? Jesus said we could gain the whole world and forfeit our true self or soul. Maybe, he’s pointing to a freedom that we all know is real but are too afraid to possess. Why not offer a simple yes or no? Why not learn to let love set our agendas? Why not learn to let love compels us into action? No oath. No institution. No framework. Just love doing what love does. Remember, refusing the oath creates an immediate pivot point. Maybe its time to pivot.
If your a seeing this, then welcome to the freedom of exile. Welcome to true freedom. Welcome to seeing beyond everything.