In the third part of why Jesus had such a problem with the Pharisees, we need to learn something about oaths. It’s not something we think much about, except when someone swears to tell the truth in court. Why does someone do this? What does it mean to raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth, “so help me God”? Why do Presidents put their hand on the Bible when they’re taking an oath of office?
When someone takes an oath like this, they’re doing more than just saying “I promise to do this.” They’re bringing God into the situation, asking him to be a witness that the one swearing is telling the truth and will keep the promise. If the oath is broken, then he invites the Lord to come in and punish him appropriately.
So why was Jesus bringing up the issue of oaths? Because the Pharisees were splitting hairs in order to get out of what they were promising. They would say “X doesn’t really mean anything, but if I swear by Y then that’s something important!”
When someone does something like this, they’re being dishonest, but they’re also being forgetful. Whenever two people are talking, there’s an unseen listener, someone who's recording every word. Whether I mean to or not, I’m bringing God into the conversation. If I swear by “the altar” then I’m swearing by the One to whom the altar is dedicated. If I swear by “the temple” then I’m swearing by the One who dwells in it. If I swear by “heaven,” then I’m swearing by the One who sits on the throne there. I might think that I’m somehow leaving God out of it by only swearing by inanimate objects, but I’m not. Remember, every word of every conversation is being recorded, and if I claim to be a follower of Jesus then I need to be the type of person who has a reputation that my “yes” means “yes” and my “no” means “no.” I shouldn’t have to swear on a stack of Bibles to get someone to believe what I’m saying.
The second part of the passage is related to the first. The Pharisees, as someone once described to me long ago, were experts at “majoring in the minors.” They'd strain out with a cloth any gnats (the smallest unclean animal) from their water while swallowing a whole camel (the largest unclean animal). What God considered less important, they fixated upon. What God considered more important, like “justice, mercy and faithfulness” was completely left in the dust.
Does this mean that outward expressions of devotion, like tithing, are not important? Um, no. Verse 23 is pretty specific. Nothing here lets us off the hook when it comes to demonstrating our faith. If my heart is right with him, I will show it in acts of devotion. If I don’t, then something’s wrong. But this does serve as a warning that it’s easy to focus on outward expression and have a heart that isn’t right with God.
So how’s your speech? Do you have the reputation as someone who can answer a simple question with “yes” or “no” without a bunch of caveats and asterisks? Have you forgotten that he’s listening? Or have you put on a show for people, straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel?
Lord Jesus, your word is like a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting and healing at the same time. Please change me, from the inside-out. I so desperately need that.