“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his 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 if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.” You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.” (Reference: Matthew 23:16-22 )
This “woe” is one of a list of woes that Jesus speaks against the Pharisees and Sadducees. The fine nuances that Jesus accuses them of is typical of the interpretations of Jewish law. The whole meaning of a passage could turn on a single letter or even a accent mark. But Jesus sees through their trying to get around the basic tenets and calls them on it. In fact Jesus called them on many things during his ministry, and still calls on people when they try to slip in a wrongdoing when what ought to be done is very plain. So do not think, beloved, that you can get around what this passage is pointing out.
But, just what is this passage pointing out? Swearing by the temple or the gold of the temple? Swearing by the altar or the gifts on the altar? Is there a difference? And I thought, Barnes would know. And he did! “Jesus says, here, that all who swear at all do, in fact, swear by God, or the oath is good for nothing. To swear by an altar, a gift, or a temple is of no force unless it be meant to appeal to God himself. The essential thing in an oath is calling God to witness our sincerity. If a real oath is taken, therefore, God is appealed to. If not it is foolish and wicked to swear by anything else.”
The historic Anabaptists also realized that trying to evade the overall edict in favor of the small nuances was wrong. An oath sworn, whatever the reason, rationale, or motivation, is sworn on the basis of our sincerity and honor. And we are accountable to God for keeping our word . . . on anything! Peter Riedeman wrote, “Here it is evident that Christ desires oaths to be sworn even less by the things which are greatest than by those which are smallest. In the same way, he rebukes the [Pharisees] because the find fault with small offenses and ignore the greatest ones. He indicates to them that the temple is more than the gold within it, and the altar more than the gift upon it. Therefore, to swear by the temple and altar is a greater sin than to swear by the gold in the temple and the gift on the altar, since one swears not only by the temple but also by him who dwells with, that is, he swears by God. Likewise, whoever swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by him who sits upon the throne. That is why Christ calls those people blind leaders, who filter out gnats and swallow camels. [Matt. 23:16-24; Luke 11:42] They focus on the smallest details of the law and ignore the greatest.”
You may wonder, beloved, why this is so important – swearing and keeping oaths under the auspice of God. It because God takes promises very seriously. God has promised many things during the time of humanity. Think about God calling out Abraham, continuing that promise through Isaac, walking with Jacob, being with Joseph in Egypt, walking with Moses, blessing David, calling out the prophets, selecting Mary, and delivering the God-self to humanity through Jesus. We have a lot to live up to.
May the God who has promised the Lord’s presence to us help you fulfill all the promises you make. Selah!