Legalism in Seven Movements: I Swear

Woe to you, blind guides! You say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is bound by the oath.” You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but whoever swears by the gift on the altar is bound by the oath.” You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits in it. (Matthew 23:16-22 TNIV)

This indictment by Jesus against the Pharisees echoes other comments made by Jesus elsewhere against the Pharisees. In Matthew 15, He told them,

And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honor you father and mother” and “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is “devoted to God,” they are not to “honor their father or mother” with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. (Matthew 15:3-6 TNIV)

What Jesus is getting at in both of these indictments is that they word their rules in such a manner that people are no longer bound by the commandments of God. In the first instance, they have made swearing by the money on the altar or the gold in the temple to have greater authority than swearing by the temple or altar itself. Most likely this was an excuse for the Pharisees to take public oaths and sound “Godly” but not be bound by those oaths later. It was a way for them to justify their sinful actions.

In the second instance, Jesus was pointing out their uncanny ability to help others wiggle out of their own commitments to God’s commands. Now, as long as they say that their time and money and whatever else belong to God’s service, they don’t have to help their own mother and father because, at least in word, their livelihood is devoted to a “higher” cause.

This is a slick move to say the least. And one which people are still good at doing today.

There are countless excuses as to why people don’t behave according to the way of Jesus. Everything from “I don’t see the results” or “It doesn’t work” to “One person may be called to that but another may not be.” I think it’s safe to say, though, that, if Jesus was truly God in the flesh, than we have no right to try and find a way out of obeying His every word and behave in like manner as He did. To do any less is to treat Him as less than God. It is to do the same to Jesus as the Pharisees did when they found ways around obeying God’s Law.

And this is one of the really dangerous things about legalism. It elevates man’s traditions to a higher level than the way of Jesus. Jesus may say to turn the other cheek, but Christians openly endorse war and torture as acceptable. Jesus may tell us to love our enemies, but Christians openly desire to see enemy nations nuked off the face of the earth.

The whole “love your enemies” thing may, in fact, be one of the best modern examples of the tradition of men taking precedence over the way of Jesus. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. But we traditionally say that we love our enemies by praying for them. And we say this as if praying for them trumps acting in love towards them. A careful look at the Gospels, though, will show that this is not in alignment with the way of Jesus. Not only did Jesus pray for His persecutors, but He also went to God on their behalf. He forgave them.

Back to the Matthew 23 passage.

Jesus comes around and offers a striking statement to end their (and our) flippant attitude toward God. He says that by swearing by heaven, which the Pharisees did, they were swearing by God. He made all oaths accountable to God in fact, no matter what they were swore by. In doing so, Jesus put the Pharisees in a place where their oaths must be taken in honesty. And they must keep them. Would that we would heed Jesus’ words and behave the same.

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