Book Plunge: Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught Part 6

Should you watch what you say? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Well it looks like David Madison might have finally found something!

36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Now why would we wish Jesus hadn’t have taught this? Because Madison is right in his next point.

This is, in fact, a terrifying warning: God is monitoring every word you utter and plans to get even on judgment day. I really do wonder how many Christians take this seriously. Do you live in constant terror of saying the wrong thing, with such horrible consequences?

Madison, David. Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (p. 43). Insighting Growth Publications. Kindle Edition.

I wouldn’t phrase it this way, but yes, we should be watching what we say. We all know that the best way to tell someone is not by their actions, but by their reactions, when they don’t have time to think out what they are going to say. Anyone can plan out a speech and look good, but to be a person of high character when you are caught off guard is something different.

So would it be easier on us if Jesus hadn’t taught this? Yes. Should we take it seriously? Yes. Does not liking it mean that it is wrong? No. This is something atheists like Madison seem to always go by. It’s an idea of “I don’t like it, therefore it’s wrong.”

Then he quotes this passage:

I say to you, “Do not swear 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 swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:34-37, NRSV)

And says about it:

One positive way to interpret this text could be, “Say what you mean and mean what you say. Just tell the truth all the time.” But, come on, isn’t the rest of this teaching worth a big yawn? Especially from those who place their hands on the Bible to swear, “So help me God.” This is worthless advice anchored to ancient cosmology that views heaven as a throne and the earth as a footstool. And so much trouble has been caused by giving special status to Jerusalem.

Madison, David. Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (p. 45). Insighting Growth Publications. Kindle Edition.

Gotta love the, “It’s boring, therefore false” implication. It would make a lot of church sermons and school lectures easier to deal with. Unfortunately, this is not how hard scholarship works.

Craig Keener says about this passage that:

The point of this passage is integrity. Letting one’s “yes” function as a “yes” and “no” as a “no” seems to employ ancient Jewish figures of speech simply to demand that one be as good as one’s word, that one keep one’s word. Jesus observes that since God witnesses every word one says anyway, one should be able to tell the truth without having to call God to witness by a formal oath (cf. Harrington 1982: 30; Jeremias 1971: 220; Manson 1979: 158–59).
Jesus addresses a popular abuse of oaths in his day. To protect the sanctity of the divine name against inadvertent oath-breaking, common Jewish practice introduced kinnuyim, surrogate objects by which to swear (Vermes 1993: 34–35). Some people apparently thought it harmless to deceive if they swore oaths by something like their right hand (t. Ned. 1:1; cf. its use in agreements, e.g., Jos. War 2.451). Others took all oaths more seriously, but specifically warned against using God’s name lest if one break the oath one profane God’s name (Philo Spec. 2.4–5; cf. 1 Enoch 69:13–16; Pesiq. R. 22:6); sometimes vows could not be fulfilled (m. Ned. 3:1). Jewish teachers had to arbitrate which oaths were actually binding as allusions to God’s name (m. Shebu. 4:13; cf. CD 15.1–5; Smith 1951: 136). The further removed the oath was from the actual name of God, the less danger they faced for violating it (Schiffman 1983: 137–38; Sanders 1990: 53–54). Some later teachers had to insist that all roundabout substitutes for vows were equivalent to vows (m. Ned. 1:1; Nazir 1:1). Sages undoubtedly had to evaluate vows’ validity frequently because they had acquired the role of canceling bad vows (e.g., t. Pisha 2:16), extending an Old Testament privilege accorded male guardians of unattached women (Num 30:3–15).
Thus people swore by heaven and earth (many cite Philo Spec. 2.5; m. Shebu. 4:13), Jerusalem (many cite m. Ned. 1:3; others in Lachs 1987: 102), one’s head (m. Sanh. 3:2), God’s throne (Apoc. Mos. 19.2) and the temple service (Sifre Deut. 1.3.2). Jesus teaches that all oaths invoke God’s witness equally. Just as heaven, earth (Is 66:1–2), and Jerusalem (Ps 48:2; Mt 4:5; 27:53) belong to God (5:34–35), so do the hairs on one’s head (5:36; cf. 10:30); one has no genuine control over their aging (cf. 6:27; Pub. Syr. 215). (The assumption would have been that hair was black and turned white with age—Soph. Antig. 1092–93; Phaedrus 2.2.9–10; Babrius 22.2–3. Only deities and magicians could change colors—cf. Ovid Metam. 11.314.) All oaths implicitly call God to witness because everything that exists was made by him. This implies that for Jesus God was actively involved in all aspects of life; no part of life except sin was purely secular.

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 194–195.

In other words, this is about integrity and not making flippant oaths. It is not a violation to go into a courtroom and make an oath when you are required to do so. Too often, the people you are interacting with there do not know you and do not know a reputation that you have.

In the end, Madison says that:

The requirement that we manage our words perfectly should be deeply troubling to any follower of Jesus.

Madison, David. Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (p. 48). Insighting Growth Publications. Kindle Edition.

Yes. Yes it should be. This brings to mind a saying of Chesterton. Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It’s been found difficult and left untried.

Perhaps we should ask why Madison doesn’t like this teaching. What are the words he would not want to be judged on?

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)