Another Word…by Gus Keiser

July 18, 2017

“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.

                                                                                                                                   Matthew 5:33

 We’ve all heard them and we’ve all been mystified by them. The “them” I’m referring to are those songs with lyrics that often times get misquoted and miss-sung.  Probably the classic example is Credence  Clearwater’s song, “Bad Moon on the Rise.  What a personal financial boon it would be if someone would agree to give us a nickel for each time someone sang, “There’s a bathroom on the right” instead of the actual words to the title.

There’s a song I heard again the other day with certain portions of lyrics that I’ve never been able to understand. The song is by Seals and Croft and it’s “I Really Want to See You Tonight”.  There are two lines in that song that I’ve never been able to understand.  The first is: “I’m not talkin’ ‘bout…?  The other is “I won’t ask for…?”  Well, I finally decided it was time to end my frustration so I logged on to the trusty Internet and went lyric exploring.  What I discovered was that the mystery word in the first of those two lines turned out to be “movin’ in”.  The second mystery word was “promises,” which made the line read: “I won’t ask for promises, so you don’t have to lie.”  So finally I was able to fill in some information that previously I didn’t have and the message in the song actually made sense.

Sometimes (way too often) we come across Bible passages like the one above and immediately we realize that there’s some info out there somewhere that we don’t have. In the second line of the verse above, Jesus instructs his listeners: “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” I don’t know about you, but I know I don’t know enough about this “vow making” thing as it applies to the culture of Jesus’ time.  Just how important was a person’s vow back then?

We can read in other parts of scripture just how important vows were when they were made to God. Take Hannah for instance: she begged, pleaded and prayed to God for a child.  In faithfulness to God for answering her fervent prayers; upon the birth of her son, Hannah promised God that she would dedicate the child’s life and service to God…which she did.  There’s another “promise” passage from the book of Acts regarding seriousness of the Nazirite vows (actually, it first comes up in the story of Samson) of shaving one’s head and purification rights.  But I think the classic Old Testament example, especially since it turns out horribly wrong for him, is that of Jephthah’s vow that he makes to God in Judges 11, that he will offer as a burnt offering to God once he returns from a successful fight, whatever greets him upon his return (only to have it be his daughter).  Each one of these seems to be some exceptional case, so why is Jesus reaching back to these vow-making situations?

His purpose is to help the people of his day (and us) understand the importance of one’s vow to God, something that we too often take too lightly. Jesus wants them and us to understand the reality that promise making and promise keeping are essential for getting along with others (and God) and that promise breaking can serve as a death knell to the human community.

Did you ever do this as a child…sure you did, we all did. As children, we readily learned that if we’d embellish our promises with some word of sincerity, it would prove that we really, really meant it.  You remember all the clever phases, don’t you?  “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” “I pinkie promise.”  And then there’s the classic… “I swear on a stack of Bibles.” We were convinced that such phrases added to our promise would more than likely get us what we wanted.  Doesn’t it seem like this is what Jesus is going after here?  Vow making is nothing more than a way of manipulating God or others into doing what we want.

But with his words to the people, Jesus is telling them to keep things simple. Let our answers be a simple “yes” or “no”.  And then we need to follow through with our promise.  We need to do what it is we said we were going to do.  We should never use our promises to manipulate others.  We need to live lives of integrity and trustworthiness…the glue that binds relationships together.

God, we’ve learned all too well just how much words matter. Our promises matter as well.  Guide us in our dealings with others so that we might prove to be trustworthy people.  And, Lord, protect us from those who would attempt to manipulate us by promising what they can’t deliver or by appealing to our basest instincts and desires.  Amen.

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