Swearing oaths

“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” (Matthew 5:33-36).

An oath is a promise of truthfulness—either to report the past truthfully or to do a future job faithfully. An oath is a promise made under the authority of a greater power, usually God himself. The most famous oath in our culture can be heard in courtrooms regularly: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Presidents and members of Congress, judges, juries, new citizens: all are asked to swear oaths that they will be faithful in their duties.

Some Christians take this teaching of Jesus so seriously that they refuse to place themselves under oath under any circumstances. Whether they are witnesses in a trial or are becoming new citizens, they ask only to affirm their truthfulness, not to swear an oath. Other Christians point out that Jesus allowed himself to be placed under oath during his trial for blasphemy—he did not object to the oath. Old Testament prophets in several places describe God placing himself under an oath as he talks to his people. (Hebrews 6:13-20 comments on the oaths God swears.) Clearly, swearing an oath is permissible under certain circumstances. When something important is at stake, swearing an oath is acceptable. When strangers need to be convinced that you are telling the truth, swearing an oath is acceptable. Aside from lying under oath, swearing an oath is sinful only when done carelessly, to no purpose, about things that are not important, or among people who already know you.

Jesus was not thinking of this sort of quibbling as he preached. Swearing oaths may be necessary in this sin-polluted world, just as divorce is necessary under certain circumstances, but neither divorce nor swearing oaths becomes good out of necessity. Living in this world, we must sometimes do things we would not do in a perfect world. Jesus wants our eyes to be in the ideal world and not limited to the rules and regulations of this life.

We respect human life so much that we would not even insult another person. Marriage matters so much that we avoid lust. In the same way, we respect the name of God so much that we use it to talk to God or to tell others about God; we do not misuse it for other purposes. Even things in this world that matter so much that they require us so swear oaths have less importance than the kingdom of God. If we use God’s name to assure someone that we are speaking truthfully about the things of this world, God’s name is not being promoted. God’s name is demoted when it is used for minor matters, purposes for which it is not intended.

Even in the Ten Commandments, God demands that we respect his name instead of misusing it. God does not want us to avoid speaking his name; he wants us to use his name when we speak to him in prayer or when we tell other people about him. People of the world continue to use God’s name for lesser purposes. We hope to keep his name holy. We remind the world who Jesus is and what he has done. We teach the people of the world how Jesus has kept his promises and rescues people from their sins. J.

A novel idea: part four (help and hope for the homeless)

There was once a con artist, a phony preacher, a wolf in sheep’s clothing: he called himself Tony Alamo. In the 1960s, he said that Jesus had called him to faith and also called him to a street ministry in California. He reached out to prostitutes, drug abusers, and the homeless, developing a commune which operated several businesses for the benefit of Alamo’s so-called ministry. In the 1970s he relocated to Arkansas, where again his church owned several businesses including a clothing factory which sold decorated leather jackets to a number of famous and wealthy individuals.

Nothing is wrong with helping the poor in Christ’s name, giving them jobs and a place to live, while selling the work of their hands to interested customers. But Tony Alamo became a millionaire while those he supposedly befriended remained destitute, hunting through dumpsters for food because he paid them so little. He subjected some of them to verbal and physical abuse. He claimed their young daughters as his wives. Alamo eventually was charged, convicted, and jailed for tax evasion, child abuse, and violation of the Mann act. He died in prison in 2017.

Jason Hero never met Tony Alamo or any of Alamo’s victims. But Jason abhorred the way Alamo took advantage of the poor and helpless. Jason especially abhorred that Alamo misused the name of Jesus to commit his crimes, “for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Jason had compassion for the homeless; but, until he won the lottery, he was not able to do much to help them.

Consulting with experts in charitable work, including attorneys, Jason established the Jason Hero Foundation and Jason Hero Enterprises. The first act of the Foundation was to open a daytime homeless shelter in the inner city. The shelter included shower stalls and a clothes washer and drier, as well as soap, shampoo, towels, and laundry detergent. It maintained a directory of soup kitchens, food pantries, and overnight shelters in the area. Every day, staff was available to consult with the people who visited the shelter. Jason persuaded doctors, nurses, dentists, barbers, social workers, and counselors to volunteer their services at the shelter on a rotating basis. As incentive for their services, his Foundation offered them financial assistance toward their student loans and other professional expenses. Pastors and Christian leaders were also invited to visit the shelter, pray with the homeless, counsel them, and encourage them. The Foundation kept a small paid staff at the shelter to keep it in good repair, to coordinate the schedules of the volunteers, and to make sure no one was abusing their access to the poor and homeless.

Next, the Foundation purchased an empty industrial plant in a smaller town nearby. It also built an apartment flat near the plant. Homeless people who visited the daytime downtown shelter were advised that they could relocate to the town and work for Jason Hero Enterprises. (We’ll assume that the plant, like Alamo’s, produced clothing.) They would be paid a livable wage, with their money first deposited in a Hero Enterprises account. From that account they could buy meals in the company cafeteria, food in the company grocery store, and lodging in the company apartments. On company property the rules were strict: no tobacco, no alcohol, no marijuana, no illegal drugs. Prescription drugs were handled through a resident nursing staff. Professional security endorsed the rules and prevented violence among workers and among residents. Anyone who was asked to leave for violating the rules, or anyone who chose to leave, was given the balance of their account in U.S. dollars. Volunteers, like those who visited the downtown shelter, made their talents available to factory workers and their families, to anyone who lived in the company apartments. Jason Hero Enterprises deducted taxes, offered health insurance, and fulfilled all the obligations of any business. Any financial losses were covered by the Jason Hero Foundation; any profits went to the Foundation and not to Jason.

Third, the Foundation purchased farmland outside of town and began raising food for the company cafeteria and grocery store. Housing units were built, and people receiving services at the downtown shelter could choose to live and work on the farm or at the factory. The same rules applied at both places, and the same services were offered. Jason’s goal was not to establish a permanent workforce at either Enterprises location, but rather to help the poor and homeless recover their lives, develop useful work skills and good work habits, and be prepared to reenter society as productive citizens.

Once again, I had hoped to develop this history in the form of a novel, with conversations, events, successes, setbacks, and dramatic conflict. But this sketch suffices for the present. Next comes Jason Hero’s political career. J.

Hallowed be thy name

Jesus says, “When you pray, say ‘…Hallowed be thy name….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also. How is God’s name kept holy? God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”

Salvageable adds: God’s name includes everything that tells us about God. His name starts with the labels we use for him: God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, Savior, Redeemer, and so on. But God’s name can also refer to the Bible, the Church, the cross, and anything else that calls God to mind. God’s name is represented by anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian.

God’s name is so important that God protects it in the Ten Commandments, telling his people not to misuse his name. His name is misused when it is spoken carelessly, as punctuation, rather than as a prayer addressed to him or as a statement about him. It is misused whenever people try to use it magically, treating the cross as a good-luck charm or treating prayer as an incantation that gives the one praying control over God. God’s name is misused whenever it is invoked in an effort to deceive other people, whether perjury (promising by God’s name to speak the truth, and then lying) or false promises (God wants you to send me one hundred dollars, and he promises you greater prosperity in return when you do so).

Of course God’s name is always holy. Anything that belongs to God is holy. God does not require our prayers to preserve the holiness of his name. But our prayers remind us that God’s name is holy. As Luther indicates, when we pray to God about the holiness of his name, we pray that his name would be holy among us. Instead of bringing shame to the name of God by our deceit, by our selfishness, and by our cold lack of love for our neighbors, we want the name of God to be honored by our neighbors when they see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Children sometimes misunderstand the words of the prayer and tell God that his name is hollow. When people pray this prayer and then go and do what they want rather than doing what God wants, they make his name hollow. As Luther prays, “Protect us from this, heavenly Father!” As Christians, may we bring glory rather than shame to the name of Christ our Lord. J.

God’s name

God says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (or, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God”) (Exodus 20:7).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use magical arts, lie, or deceive by God’s name, but call upon it in times of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

Salvageable adds: Notice that in this and all the other commandments, Luther ties our obedience to our fear of God and our love for God. Because we cannot earn anything from God by our obedience, our efforts to live according to his commandments are part of our relationship with the Lord who has washed away our sins, purifying us, and making us acceptable in the sight of God. The commandments help us to imitate Jesus, since he lived a life of pure righteousness, faithfully following all these commandments.

In the narrow sense, God’s name is Yahweh (or Jehovah), the special name that means “I am.” In a more general sense, God’s name is anything that he is called: God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, and the many other names that belong to him. In the broadest, sense, God’s name is anything that teaches us about him or reminds us of him, including the Bible, church buildings, and crosses.

People insult God when they use his name to punctuate their conversation, declaring by God’s name how hot it is, or how happy or angry they are, or how much it hurts to drop a book of boxes on one’s foot. The roofer who worked on my house some years ago sounded like a very holy man, using God’s names in every sentence he spoke. On the other hand, he was neither praying to God nor witnessing about him. But, as Luther indicates, God’s name can be misused in other ways that are even worse than thoughtless and careless utterances of his name.

We should not curse. To curse is to wish harm on someone else. “I hope you fall down the stairs and break your neck” is a curse. The worst thing we can wish for anyone is eternal condemnation and punishment. Therefore, when a person tells another person or object to “go to hell” or says “damn you” or describes someone or something as “god-damned,” that person is cursing. (Other obscene language has come to be known as cursing as well, but Luther is using the word with its original meaning.) Only God can judge and decide who will go to hell. We have no right to make that decision for him, not even while driving on the expressway.

We should not swear. To swear is to use God’s name to back a promise. Luther taught that the government can require us to swear—when we bear witness in court, or when we take an important job with the government, for example. In our daily conversation, swearing is unnecessary and insults God’s name. We should be honest enough with the people who know us that they require no oath from us to prove that we are telling the truth. When we say yes, we should mean yes; and when we say no, we should mean no. If people can trust us to speak the truth, swearing is unnecessary.

We should not use God’s name for magical arts. Magic is part of many pagan religions, in which people use special words, gestures, ingredients, and objects to try to control the world. We are not to use God’s name in that way. His name is holy, but it has no magic power. We cannot control God or the world around us by using God’s name in a special way. In the broadest sense, people misuse God’s name when they believe that wearing a cross or carrying a Bible keeps them safe from certain kinds of harm. These things are holy because they remind us of God and teach us about him, but we should not look to them for magical power over the world.

We should not use God’s name to lie or deceive anyone. Luther says “deceive” as well as “lie” because he knows there are ways we can trick someone into believing a lie without actually lying. To claim that one has a message from God when one has no such message is a serious sin. Those who have made careers and become wealthy by using God’s name to lie and to deceive others face severe judgment when they finally meet God face to face.

It might seem that we can never misuse God’s name if we never speak his name. Neglect is also abuse. Luther says we should call upon his name in times of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. God wants to hear our prayers. He wants us to talk to him about what matters most to us. He calls us to praise and thank him, not because he wants to be flattered, but because he wants us to remind ourselves how good he is and how many good things he has done for us. Of course we also use God’s name to tell other people about him. We praise him to others as we speak of his grace and mercy and forgiveness and as we describe the victory Jesus won against all our enemies. Other people need to hear these things, and God expects us to use his name as we share this faith and hope. J.