‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But 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.
I swear this was an interesting iChapel to write.
Pardon the pun, but it allows for an useful way into this passage from Matthew’s gospel that we—along with Bonhoeffer—are about to consider.
Bonhoeffer begins his reflections on the passage from Matthew’s gospel with this summation: “The Christian Church has until now been strangely uncertain about the interpretation of this passage. Since the time of the Primitive Church, commentators have oscillated between a rigorism which rejects every oath as a sin, and a more liberal position which rejects only frivolous oaths and downright perjury.” In his reflection, Bonhoeffer attempts to address the gospel writer’s interaction with the text from Isaiah (7:14) imbedded in the Matthew passage, the writer’s apparent rejection of the prophet’s text, and how that text’s rejection or reinterpretation fits into his developing understanding of discipleship. In the end, Bonhoeffer is keen to avoid the pitfalls of both literalism’s ridged and uncritical reading of the text and liberalism’s metaphorical and ostensive dismissal of the text all together. Rather than choosing to consider the balance between oath-taking read literally or metaphorically, Bonhoeffer pivots to read the text theologically, considering any theologically instructive notions emerging from it. In other words, instead of just asking what the text meant when the gospel writer put pen to paper, Bonhoeffer wants to know what the text means for us, today.
First, we need to consider what oaths tell us about the world before determining how well they fit within our world.
Oaths seem to indicate, or more precisely the need for oaths, a frailty inherent to our social systems. For an oath is but a declaration that what is said at a given time on a given subject is to be taken as truth, suggesting that what is said at other times on other subjects is not to be taken as truth. In other words, there is a dual nature to oaths. Positively, oaths mean that some statements may be taken to be true and trustworthy. Negatively, oaths create a space where lies might exist, defining a barrier between times of truthfulness and times where truthfulness and lying might mix. An implied question emerges, Does the presence of oaths serve as a reminder that truthfulness is not always present or does the presence of oaths actually create the possibility that lies might have space to operate? (A classic chicken and egg debate.) Regardless, oaths seem to mean that lies and truth awkwardly interact within our lives and that we must develop strategies to deal with such a muddled world.
Theologically, Bonhoeffer sees a value in oath-taking, as a compromise or middle position, a position taken along the way from one state of communal living to another. Oath-taking’s compromise is a witness to the community that while lies and truth might intermingle most of the time, we are, also, capable of living together as truth-tellers when we put our minds and hearts to it.
By both accepting the need to have oaths as a witness to who might be and by rejecting oaths as a witness to who we must be, Jesus in the gospel is declaring that a new state of existence is necessary if we are to be who we are meant to be. That state of existence is a community defined not so much by the truth of our claims but by the truthfulness of our living. In other words, discipleship is not so much about our declarations of the truth of Jesus as the Christ but our living as people truthful to each other and to God. The kingdom/community of God is less a propositional claim as a relational commitment, a commitment to God and to each other. (This idea lingers in our own language. Think about our expressions of calling someone a “true friend” or how we are encouraged to be “true to each other.”)
And, as it turns out, a kingdom/community of faith does not have room for untruthfulness, so the space granted lies in a world containing oaths is not tolerated because lies destroy community with God and each other. So oaths—while functionally useful—are not ultimately useful in a community defined primarily by relationships, because relationships must rest on perpetual, not sporadic truthfulness . . . at least this seems to be the direction that Bonhoeffer wishes to take us.
Truth-telling, it turns out, is a truth-making enterprise that builds truthful, trusting community. Therefore, it seems that this passage is not so much about oath-taking as truth-telling.
So, in that spirit of truth-telling as an essential part of who we are, I want to reflect on this season of thanks into which we are entering, telling the truth about our thanksgiving . . . or reflecting on much of my thanksgivings offered over the years.
During the coming days, there will be many occasions—occasions in which I have happy shared and often facilitated—when we are invited to express our own reasons for being thankful. With genuine joy, we declare our thanks for family and friends and provisions and plenty and health and wealth and opportunity and promise. While legitimately thankful, I am suspicious that behind our thanksgiving is a subtle conclusion drawn from a cursory judgment of others and the world around us.
Often, it seems, that our thankfulness issues from our reflections on other’s “lacking” relative to our own “having.”
Now, do not get me wrong. By itself, such a conclusion of (relative) thanks drawn from comparison is not wrong nor practically avoidable. In fact, our prayers over this season often reflect this very reality. We pray things like, “As we gather around this table, we are thankful for all that we have. In our bounty, we are reminded of those who go hungry, today.”
Delicately linked, our thanksgiving is drawn from comparison. We notice what we have by noticing what others do not, or by noticing what we have we notice what others do not. Either way, our having is linked to other’s not having. But, that linking can be problematic if we are (unconsciously) thankful only to the degree that others are suffering. In such a scenario, our thankfulness becomes conditional. With this calculation, if others cease to do without or start to do better, our thankfulness can decrease, sometimes to be replaced by resentment or jealousy.
So, our thankfulness must not be simply a relative category that produces gratitude in us. The danger with thankfulness as a relative category is that at best it can lead to complacency, i.e., our being content with the thankfulness that emerges from the simple observation that we have and that others do not. At worst, it can transform from observation to overt judgment, i.e., the generation of a negative attitude toward those without, allowing poverty to become a commentary on the character of the poor.
Rather, our thankfulness needs to be a relational category, not a relative one.
Instead of drawing the (relative) conclusion that we have much for which to be thankful by virtue of the fact that we notice that others to not, we need to understand thankfulness as a relational category, drawing the conclusion that we have much from noticing that others do not and, yet, asking the second and third questions, i.e., why and what can I do about it.
The transition from thankfulness as a relative category to thankfulness as a relational category is the simple insertion of a second step. Observation must lead to action.
When we conclude that we are thankful because of what we have and share, that conclusion must lead to a response, seeking to identify ways to have and share our lives and our reasons for being thankful with our neighbors.
In truth, such a transition from observation to action is never easy, but it is possible, a possibility made real through the simple exercise of being truthful with ourselves about how we come to conclude why we are thankful.
And, as good news, I can say that such transformations are happening across our campus, already.
Last week, students from YHC traveled to Asheville to work and share life and worship with a community of homeless and sheltered neighbors seeking an authentic, relational life of thanksgiving together. On Thursday, dozens upon dozens from our campus streamed into the dining hall to pack thousands upon thousands of meals for those in our country and around the world who are hungry. This week in chapel, scores more will bring shoeboxes to our Thanksgiving Chapel service, shoeboxes packed with good gifts to be shared with neighbors we will certainly never meet. And, this Sunday around a table, many from our campus who represent different faiths and nationalities will sit together to share a simple meal and conversation, an intimate, truthful moment of thanks for us all.
These are small, intentional steps, each one, that help to produce a community more reflective of who we are meant to be, a community more like the kingdom of God than we might ever imagine . . . I swear it!