Compare Matthew 18:8-9; 19:9; Mark 9:43-48; 10:11-12; Luke 16:18
In my recently posted note on Matthew 5:17-20, I mentioned what I call “antinomian” readings of Christianity, which seem to suggest that it’s all and only about grace, and that good works have very little place in Christian discipleship. I commented that one would be hard pressed to defend such a reading from the four gospels, and particularly from the Sermon on the Mount.
Today’s reading selection certainly illustrates my point. Even lustful thoughts are to be avoided, whether they lead to adulterous actions or not.
The standard is extremely high. Between the law of Moses and the New Testament, it certainly hasn’t been lowered. Jesus’s vivid language about plucking out and throwing away your right hand if it leads you into sin, or dispensing with your eye, surely can’t be taken to suggest that Jesus views sin with benign indulgence or indifference. The Christianity taught by Christ himself is very demanding.
But I don’t mean to suggest that this text is merely a good weapon to deploy against others who may differ from us about faith and works. We who profess to follow Christ should be continually applying the test Christ describes in our own lives. Is there anything in our daily routine or among our possessions that distracts us from living as Christian disciples, that interferes with service in the Kingdom and to the Saints and others? If so, we should seriously consider getting rid of it.
C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is a profound meditation on just this kind of discipleship, and I recommend it to all.
Some Christian groups have, quite understandably, taken this passage to mean not merely that disciples of Jesus shouldn’t swear falsely but that they should never take oaths (e.g., of citizenship) at all.
But this seems to me mistaken, and quite impractical.
Why? Because our society runs on promises such as contracts, marriage covenants, and the like. We could not, and should not, function without them.
And God himself is said to have sworn an oath, at Hebrews 6:13, where we’re told that, having nobody greater to swear by, he swore by himself.
There’s a great deal more that ought to be said on this subject, but it seems to me that the burden of Christ’s counsel here might not be that we should never make promises, but that we not swear by things such as the heavens, the earth, the city of Jerusalem, or, even, our hair (an oath that I’ve seldom been tempted to take).