Oaths, Eyes & Enemies – SOTM series (6)

At Part 6 of our Sermon on the Mount series at Little Flowers Community, we are beginning to see that Jesus not only has a way of teaching that reinforces His central point through many directions, but that He is calling us into a way of life that is disruptive and demanding.  I believe that this section of His teaching, Matthew 5:33-48, brings the heart of His message out more clearly than previously.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

Growing up, this Scripture was not talked about much in my own tradition beyond the simple lesson “Be honest”.  Attending a Christian school with several Mennonite teachers, it was mentioned off and on that this verse forbade us from swear an oath in court.  It was even suggested that this meant that the priestly and monastic vows of Roman Catholicism were also contrary to Scripture.  I was always left underwhelmed by these answers.  What was Jesus speaking of here?

In years of youth ministry, I cannot count how many times, when I would have to question someone about one problem or another, that I heard these words in reply: “I swear I didn’t do it!” or “I swear to God I am telling the truth”.  Speaking nothing of the sincerity or honesty of their words (for some were telling truth and others were not), I was always left frustrated by these oaths.  While often said for emphasis, the underlying message of swearing that you are telling the truth is that, when you do not swear, your word is less than trustworthy.  It is not that the oath itself is wrong, but rather that your word becomes only trustworthy when you declare one.

Jesus calls us to be a light to the world, requiring a purity of conscience that is not clouded or hidden by half-truths or “untrustworthiness”.  We are called to live lives of such integrity that our character is the only oath of authenticity our words need.  In Jesus’ day, like our own, people used little white lies all the time, like when running a business.  People expected it.  It was the norm.  However, Jesus leaves no room for us to compromise in even the seemingly small issues, for on our ever word is hinged the Gospel & God we represent.  He emphasizes this point by showing us that anything else is from the evil one.  Again, the standard of behaviour, linked to our representing Christ to the world, is raised.

And so, our words must represent the truth- not rationalized and not qualified.  Our yes must be yes and our no must be no.  Proverbs 10:19 tells us that, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds the tongue is wise”.  How often do we try to minimize, qualify, justify or mitigate our failings even while we are “repenting”?  If we are to truly embrace a life of wholly loving God and others, we must be people of truth, in word and deed. This is not an optional virtue of the super-Christians, but the base-line standard for all believers.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Here Jesus is reminding us again what sin is.  Rather than primarily about acts of moral failure, He shows us that sin is about “missing the mark”- that is, failing to God’s best.  Again, if we read this section as if these examples are for the especially devout, we miss Jesus point entirely.  It is not enough for us to not strike back when we are harmed.  It is not enough that submit to requirements of the law. Rather, we must go beyond what is required of us, returning evil with good every time. This is to be the nature of who we are as people of the Beatitudes, people of God.

If we believe this then we will se that there is always- ALWAYS- a cost to following Christ.  That cost will be paid out in service and love to others, even our enemies (especially our enemies).  After all, it is not about us, but about God.  Our ability to truly know Jesus is inseparably linked to our ability to embrace His costly way of life.  Further, we cannot expect others to see and embrace Jesus is our lives are willingly and consistently following this path.

This is not merely about charitable generosity, but about choosing to give love (tangibly) in the face of being wronged.  By tangibly, I mean it will likely cost us time, money, energy, possessions, etc.  When Jesus calls us to follow Him, He calls us to give up our rights.  Just as He had a different will from the Father (“Not my will, but Yours be done”), but willingly submitted to the Cross, so to are we called to this submission.  And, again like Christ, it will lead us daily to the Cross.  After all, how can we proclaim the Cross of salvation when we are not willing to drink from that cup in our own lives?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It is critical here to note that when Jesus refers to our enemies, He identifies them as people who persecute us.  Jesus presumes that our enemies are those who hate us, not those we hate.  Clearly Jesus knows that we hate others (as the openly line suggests).  However, He turns this maxim around, building on the clear premise that His followers do not hate anyone, but love all.  Neither is He blind to how hard this is, but rather points clearly to the fact that this is demanding and (again) costly for us.

Through the Sermon on the Mount we are called accept suffering and consider ourselves blessed for it.  Then we are told to give up our right to fight back.  Now He takes it so far as to say that we are to love our enemies.  Jesus commands us also to pray for our enemies!  Consider that for a minute: Not only are we to accept their abuse, return evil with good, love them even as they hate and persecute us, but now we are to stand before God and speak in their defense! We are to be for our enemies what Christ is for us.  How monumentally difficult, beautiful and humbling.  Imagine a world in which we truly lived this way…

It is in this section that we first see Jesus use the word “love” in the Sermon.  Love.  It is in this direction that Christ has been leading us all along.  It is the direction that God has been leading all of Creation towards from the beginning.  It is the promised end to which we strive fulfill.  Love.  It is here that we begin to understand what true love is.  True love is not merely the love of affection and loyalty that comes easy to us, but a love that is not mitigated by whether the person is our sister or whether they are our executioner. This is the love of Jesus, a love that will die willingly for the sake of others, whether they deserve it or not.  It is the love symbolized by the stark paradox of the Cross.

Too often we view our faith as a way of life that is about making us better people, a philosophy that will improve the quality of your life.  This is a poisonous lie.  It is not about us, but about God. Under the Lordship of Christ, our lives are not our own, in every aspect.  Our money, times, career path, energy, imagination, giftings, expectations, etc. are all God’s for His purposes and His glory.  Of course, He is a God of love and so our lives will ultimately become better.  We will become better people.  However, these are the graces of the Father given to His children, not our deserved reward for simply becoming Christians.

Jesus’ love for us was demonstrated on the Cross. Our love for God & others must be demonstrated in the same way.

5 Responses to “Oaths, Eyes & Enemies – SOTM series (6)”

  1. Tim Harris Says:

    hey jamie. i very much agree that God has called us to a higher standard. this is very important as this is only achievable through Christ’s work in our lives. just because we’re christians doesn’t mean that we don’t have a sin nature any more. it is a constant battle and to go the extra mile in all that we do is even harder.
    i do have a question regarding “Rather than primarily about acts of moral failure, He shows us that sin is about “missing the mark”- that is, failing to do God’s best.” i think that there should be caution in this statement. sin is both. God has called us to be holy as well as to go beyond what people expect of us. when Jesus challenges those who condemned the woman caught in adultery Jesus told her to leave her life of sin. adultery is a sin. i understand that there has been an abuse of regarding sin as acts of moral failure in that in the church people have thought of themselves as righteous because they didn’t “smoke, drink or chew or talk with girls who do”. this is wrong in that our righteousness is a filthy rag before God. but does this mean that we stop trying to be righteous?
    you also said, “Too often we view our faith as a way of life that is about making us better people, a philosophy that will improve the quality of your life. This is a poisonous lie. It is not about us, but about God. Under the Lordship of Christ, our lives are not our own, in every aspect.” i obviously agree with this in that it is not us but God who works in our hearts to make us a holy people. God as at work in us and we can have faith that he will work out our salvation (Php. 2:12-13). we should daily be broken and live a life of surrender and sacrifice so that God may be seen working in us and then His love will flow out of us. I Thes. 4:7-8 “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.” God will work in us daily for the rest of our lives. it’s about being imitators of God in His love (Eph. 5:1-2) but also in our purity (Eph. 5:3-21). there is a dangerous trend now that replaces the word “sin” with the word “mistakes”. it is only once we realize the seriousness of our sins and our depravity apart from Christ that we can truly appreciate grace.
    “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. …what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
    i hope i did not misinterpret what you meant. this became a really long comment. i apologize.

  2. admin Says:

    Hey Tim,

    Thanks for taking the time to really dig into the material and respond. I appreciate what you have to say. I want to push back a little on this for discussions sake and see what you think.

    First, I want you to reread my sentence about sin. As you mentioned, it says, “Rather than primarily about acts of moral failure, He shows us that sin is about ‘missing the mark'”. Notice the word “primarily” in the sentence. This was very intentionally placed there so suggest two things: First, that sin is most definitely about moral failings; and secondly, that this is not the primary or first emphasis Jesus is teaching about the nature of sin. My point is not that there are not moral failures, but that sin is most wrong because of what it fails to be, not what it is. Consider the analogy of light and darkness so often used in Scripture, with sin being like darkness and righteousness being light. Darkness, while it is very real and can blind us, has no substance, it isn’t anything in and of itself. It is, in fact, the absence of light. Therefore, you cannot chase away the darkness apart from bringing the light. In the same way, you cannot understand sin without understanding what light is not present. If you are greedy, it is not enough to stop being greedy, but you must embrace generosity. Repentance is about turning, changing, moving in a different direction. Yes, that includes confession of failings and the need for forgiveness, but in this passage, Jesus is saying that is not enough. He is saying instead that we must then pursue the light. That is true righteousness and holiness- not only the absence of darkness (sin), but the presence of light (active, incarnational righteousness). After all, God isn’t holy because He doesn’t sin, right? It is far more than that.

    I agree that there is a “dangerous trend now that replaces the word ‘sin’ with the word ‘mistakes'”. However, I would suggest that the understanding of sin present here is not as example of that. In fact, I would say it make sin even more serious. Let me give you an example. We know that racism is a sin, because it is born of the belief that some races are inherently better than others, which is hateful and denies that all people are made in God’s image. You and I are not racists. According the typical view of what sin is, we should not be racist (as it is a clear and serious moral failing). However, with this understanding of sin that Jesus present, it is not enough for us to be “not racist”. That would be like try to simply chase away the darkness without embracing the light. The light in this case- the “other cheek”, the “tunic”, the “extra mile”- requires that we not only reject racism, but are also committed to actively pursuing and celebrating diversity. That is a much higher standard that makes sin far more serious. Again, God is not holy and righteous because He doesn’t sin, but because of His nature, which is actively loving, gracious, peaceful, just, merciful, etc.

    It is interesting that you quoted Bonhoeffer from his book “The Cost of Discipleship”, as it is in this book that I first learned about how clearly Jesus laid out this understanding of sin. Like Bonhoeffer, I am not saying that we shouldn’t be a moral people who hate sin, but rather I am saying that THAT isn’t enough. Bonhoeffer is very clear on what Jesus means. It is not first about avoiding immorality (though that is an important secondary part of it), but rather first about living like Christ, who pursued God and others with active love and grace.

    No need to apologize for the length of the comment or if you might have misinterpreted me. You & I both have been raised in good Christian contexts, but contexts that often placed more of an emphasis on the fear of evil than a love of good. Belief became about accept certain ideas to be true (which is a part of it), instead of about heart, mind & body conviction that leads us to transformed lives of love and service to God and others. I hope this helps clear things up.

    Peace,
    Jamie

  3. Tim Harris Says:

    I definitely agree that it is both and that you cannot have one without the other. as i had stated “sin is both.” if we obsess over not being immoral we become pharisees and as i recall Jesus wasn’t too fond of them (what, with the white-washed tombs and all). if we stray too far the other way then we have the same problem that the church in Corinth had. as one of my profs said, “the middle ground is usually where you need to be. not only is it safe but it is biblical.” constantly there are teachings of one thing and then a warning about going to far in one direction (seen best throughout Romans). i agree that our backgrounds have influenced us but there is also the danger of abandoning the right teachings that were muddled with a lack of actions. we need both. pendulums have a way of swinging too far in the other direction but i see that you have yours under control. not that i doubted this but i just wanted clarity. thanks.
    a good illustration of the importance of both views:
    Romans 12:9 “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”
    but also:
    Romans 12:21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

  4. admin Says:

    Good points, Tim. I think that to truly pursue good, that will include fleeing from evil. Thanks for weighing in.

    Peace,
    Jamie

  5. Little Flowers Community » Blog Archive » Hiding In Plain Sight – SOTM Series (7) Says:

    […] Oaths, Eyes & Enemies – SOTM (6) […]

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