Matthew 5:33-37
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
June 23, 2024

A young professor signed a contract to teach at a Christian college.  In August she received another offer from a school closer to where she lived.  So she reneged on her original commitment and left the first school high and dry a few weeks before the start of the semester.  The dean said she justified her decision by saying, “I have peace about it.”  “That’s lovely,” he sardonically remarked, “She’s got peace, and I’ve got a department in pieces as a result.”

These days, people make as many promises as they ever did, but they don’t as often take their keeping them as seriously as they used to.

A while ago, there was a story in the L.A. Times about a man who on a whim drove by the house where he’d grown up but hadn’t visited in 20 years.  He saw the present occupant watering the front yard, struck up a conversation, and got himself invited to come in and look around the old place.  In the attic he found a jacket of his, put it on to see if it still fit, felt something in a pocket and pulled out a claim slip from a shoe repair shop.  A vivid memory flashed before his mind:  of a loose heel on a favorite pair of shoes and of the cobbler’s glasses slipping down his nose as he promised, “They’ll be ready next Thursday.”  But, with one thing and another, the man never got around to picking them up before he left the city.

On a lark, he decided to drop by the shop.  It was still there, and the same cobbler stood behind the counter.  Just to be funny, the man handed him the claim slip and asked, “Are my shoes ready?”  The cobbler turned around, walked into the back room, and returned, saying, “They’ll be ready next Thursday.”

People today make as many promises as they ever did, but they now make them more casually than they once did.  The Bible, however, still sees the fulfillment of promises as a solemn obligation.  The Bible in fact teaches that a person’s character consists of the commitments they keep.  According to the Bible, a person is only as good as their word.

Jesus instructs His followers to live as people of integrity who do what they say they will, even when it costs them.  Jesus, after all, calls them to “exceeding” righteousness.  To live out such righteousness is to have promises we’ll not forget, causes we’ll not desert, ships we’ll not abandon, and people we’ll not forsake. It’s to persist in love even if our heart has grown cold and to stick with folks even if they’ve become pains in the neck.  It’s to make one thing certain about a future full of uncertainty: We’ll be good for our word no matter what.

When tempted to make a promise without sincerity or resolve, some find it helpful to back the promise by swearing an oath – that is, making a vow in which we call on God to watch and to punish us if we don’t fulfill our promise.  Jesus, however, wants better from His followers.  He wants them to develop such character that vows become needless.  Let the scribes and Pharisees fuss over phrasing vows just right.  Jesus means for us to focus on becoming the right kind of people, people of such true and strong integrity that our word speaks for itself.

In truth, making a vow adds nothing to a promise.  For any promise we make is binding upon us irrespective of what else we say.  Moreover, if we have, in following Jesus, become as good as our word, swearing brings others no more assurance.  Our character alone suffices to guarantee that we can be counted on.

Because the righteousness is in the faithfulness of the follow-through, Jesus here commands His followers to “not swear at all!”  Just making the promise is enough if we’re people who bear in mind that to make a promise to anyone is to make one to God as well, whether or not we explicitly mention Him – and if we’re people who get it that we’re not off the hook for fulfilling the promise if we avoid speaking the name, “God”.  God is always involved any way.  If we swear “by heaven”, we’re talking about God’s kingdom; or if we swear “by earth”, we’re talking about God’s creation; or if we swear “by Jerusalem”, we’re talking about God’s holy city.  Even if we swear by our own “head”, we refer to a gift of God whose every detail, down to our hair color, He determined.

Swearing an oath is unnecessary if we are the people we should be:  the righteous who treat every promise as a promise to God.  Therefore, Jesus’ faithful followers, when asked for a commitment, need say no more than a simple “Yes” or “No’’.  Jesus says that saying “anything more than this comes from the evil one”.  It’s a deceitful work-around to avoid dealing with the issue of our character.

So, if an absence of integrity comes from the evil one, where does its presence come from?  Not from us!  We’re too weak and irresolute to give ourselves the right character.     We can’t on our own become the promise-keepers we should be.  Isn’t that obvious from how often we’ve let others down – and, for that matter, ourselves?  We can’t even keep promises to ourselves with any consistency!  Think of all the times we’ve promised ourselves we’d eat healthier, exercise more or regulate our tongue more carefully – and did not!  If we really had it in us to keep promises as we should, wouldn’t we have done better by now?  Why do we show but little progress despite all our rededications of ourselves?

Why?  Because we keep thinking it depends first and foremost on us!  Because we forget Jesus invites us to live in His life, from which we gain the ability to do what we never could by ourselves!  This life in Him is more about trusting Him than trying harder, about availing of His power than mustering our own, about giving up on self-reliance than giving out in self-effort.

As Steve McVey, president of Grace Walk Ministries, put it, “Before we can be promise keepers, we must become promise receivers.”  We must believe and receive Jesus’ promise that He will live in us and lift our life beyond its natural capability – if only we open up to Him and let Him take the lead.

We will grow better in keeping our promises if we hope in His keeping His promises to live and work in us!

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