Sunday, January 21, 2018

On the Mount (14)

Words are usually coined when we need to make useful distinctions not obvious in the current vernacular. If we have at our disposal a nice, precise bit of language to describe a particular concept, we generally use it. If we don’t, we have to either cobble ourselves together a new one from other familiar words (I’m currently fond of “crybully” and “humblebrag”), or borrow one from another language (schadenfreude is getting a little long in the tooth, but it’s still a beaut).

This is an ongoing process, for obvious reasons. Through repeated misuse, the semantic range of our existing vocabulary expands relentlessly until we get to the point that we can no longer make those useful distinctions that are such a critical component of communication.

All to say that if you can distinguish between the current, debased usage of “profanity” (offensive language), “obscenity” (morally offensive language) and “swearing” (profanity), good luck to you.

I can’t. Or really, this generation can’t.

For the pedants in our midst, “profanity” used to refer specifically to the coarsening or common usage of something higher or more sacred, usually in the religious sphere; “obscenity” referred to giving voice to something morally scandalous; and “swearing” meant making a solemn promise (as opposed to “Quit swearing, Billy, or I’ll make you wash your mouth out with soap!”). Today the three are used almost interchangeably.

The word “oath” has fared only slightly better, but we can still work that one out with a little help from context.

This is Not That

Thus, when we come to the use of the words “swear”, “sworn” and “oath” in this next section of the Sermon on the Mount, we must stop to make clear that the Lord is not really concerned — at least in this passage — about the casual derogatory adjectives, nouns and exclamations (sexual, religious or otherwise) in all-too-common use today and for which HBO is particularly notorious. We can argue that such expressions have their genesis in historical oath-taking, and they do. We can argue that the intent of a person using strong language today is not so dissimilar to that of a person putting his hand under the thigh of a Hebrew friend: he is telling you he really, REALLY means it, just like Peter doubling down on his denial of the Lord Jesus with an oath. All that would be true.

But if we deliberately obscure the significant differences between casual, modern profanity and formal Hebrew oath-taking, we will probably miss the main point the Lord is making to his audience. There are indeed passages of scripture which deal with course, perverse or foolish language, and we can use those if we need to demonstrate that sort of speech is neither virtuous or Christian.

So, yeah. This is not that.

Legitimate Vows

Another thing the Lord is NOT doing here is repudiating commandments given by Moses. Throughout his ministry, the Lord consistently upheld the law. He had just made that fact explicit in this very sermon in case anyone had failed to notice. If anything, he made its implications stricter, not weaker.

The Law of Moses required certain kinds of oaths. In legal matters, it sometimes became necessary to put formally on record that you were telling the truth. In a property dispute, an oath by the name of Jehovah would stand as evidence a man was not lying about stealing his neighbour’s goods. A wife accused of adultery was to take an oath in front of a priest to confirm her faithfulness. Swearing such oaths was not optional, and I find it hard to imagine the Son of God dismissing, rather than fulfilling, the direct commandments of God.

But other than these two instances, the Law of Moses does not demand the taking of oaths. Rather, it requires that oaths taken voluntarily be fulfilled. The virtue the Law inculcates in its subjects is not enthusiastic promise-making but rather dependability and trustworthiness.

Law and its Purpose

As has been noted before, the fact that any particular characteristic feature of Israelite society was once regulated by Law of Moses law does not guarantee that it originated with God or meets with his approval. Still less does it mean that it is God’s best, as the Sermon frequently illustrates.

Abraham made his servant take an oath. God swore an oath to Abraham. Oath-taking did not originate with the Law of Moses — any more than did slavery, the monarchy, worship, sacrifice, priesthood, divorce, the prominence of the firstborn, making business or personal loans, the patriarchal structure of home life or mourning for the dead. All were practiced in other societies of the day. Israel had either already appropriated them or seemed likely to do so shortly. As a result, God made regulations concerning them. That his standards were uniformly kinder, fairer, more reasonable and more just than those of the nations should not come as a surprise.

So exactly what sort of oath-taking was the Lord referring to then?

What It Is

Here are the Lord’s words on the subject:
“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.”
The phrase following “You have heard it said” pretty much paraphrases Numbers 30:2. Further, the Law took into account the likelihood that men and women would fail to deliver on their solemn promises, and makes provision for dealing with the guilt incurred:
“If anyone utters with his lips a rash oath to do evil or to do good, any sort of rash oath that people swear, and it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it, and he realizes his guilt in any of these; when he realizes his guilt in any of these and confesses the sin he has committed, he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation for the sin that he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.”
Here I think it is the rashness of the oath that is initially hidden from the oath-taker and later becomes evident. Things do not always roll out the way we plan, as Jephthah the Gileadite could no doubt testify. Perhaps that is why an Israelite husband was given a post-facto veto over vows made by his wife. It’s tough enough to be obliged to make good on your own foolish pronouncements without also being made accountable for those of someone else.

All Voluntary Oaths are Rash

Now, the “oath to do evil” referred to above is rash by definition. It puts the person who swears it in an impossible conundrum: sin by breaking your oath, or sin by fulfilling it. Nice choice there.

But what was perhaps not as well understood by the Lord’s audience is that an “oath to do good” is very nearly as perilous, and this is what the Lord’s words imply: when men take oaths at all, they are very much out of their depth. It doesn’t matter if one chooses to swear by the throne of God, or by the earth, or even by an earthly city, all these things are beyond even the greatest of us. We did not establish God’s throne, set the earth on its axis, or build the city, nor could we. Even the simplest control of our own bodies is beyond us: as Jesus said, “You cannot make one hair black or white”.

Solemn promises made in the name of God are both presumptuous and short-sighted. They arise out of arrogance and failure to grasp our own impotence and transience. It would not overstate the case to say that all voluntary oaths are rash oaths.

Implications and Applications

For the Jew, this subsection of the Sermon once again restates one of its fundamental premises: the Law cannot be fulfilled by mere men however devout they may be. Something more was needed, and thankfully God has provided the answer to that need in the person and work of his Son.

Christians are not generally in danger of attempting to establish our own righteousness through law-keeping, but we would be foolish to ignore the principle Jesus lays down here. In case we are tempted to do so, James restates it post-Pentecost:
“But above all, my brothers, 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.”
That “above all” is surely not hyperbole.

And even if we think it is, the cost of finding out may well be considerable.

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