Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it. (Matthew 23:16-22)
Mark Bradford wrote a helpful commentary about this passage, and here are a few explanatory excerpts:
In Judaism, it was taught that any oath that used the name of God was binding, but other oaths were not as binding. The Pharisees had come up with a complicated sliding scale of objects that were more holy or less holy than others by which they could swear. The holier the object, the more binding the oath. So if they swore by something that was not considered as holy as something else, they didn’t have to keep their oath…
In addition, the way they had decided which objects were holier than others made no sense. The Pharisees… considered offerings and gold to be holier than the temple that made them holy in the first place. To avoid swearing by God, they would swear by heaven. But as Jesus says here, anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.¹
As a child, I remember saying such things as, “I swear on a stack of Bibles” or “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye” to convey my earnest promise or sincere honesty. I wonder how the Pharisees would have “rated” my oaths! Would the Bibles or the needle in my eye hold more value? More importantly, I wonder how Jesus must have felt each time I swore on something to substantiate my words.
Everything belongs to God. The gold, the sanctuary, the gift, and the altar ALL belong to God. The things we make, the worship we give, the earth on which we live, and even my eye are ALL part of God’s creation. When we swear an oath on anything, we are swearing on God. There is no sliding scale of what is more or less God’s.
As Jesus’ followers, we are to refrain from swearing- by God or by anything else. Later in this excerpt, Bradford reminds us that Jesus tells his disciples, Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:37). There is no varying degree or gradient to truth-telling or promise keeping. Our words must be honest and our integrity clear. We honor God most when we live our lives in truth, in honesty, in pureness, and in integrity. No swearing needed.
Are you talking to ME?
Today Jesus is asking, “Which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? Which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?”
Everything is God’s. Does this give you a new understanding of the problem with oaths or swearing by anything, since it all belongs to God? Do you keep your promises? Do you strive to tell the truth? Do your actions match your words? How might you live with even greater integrity?
Which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? Which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?