Words without Props (John Frye)

Words without Props (John Frye) June 27, 2014

Words without Props, by John Frye

I realize I have quite a challenge in reviewing The Story of God Bible Commentary: The Sermon on the Mount by Dr. Scot McKnight. Scot compresses so much into succinct and provocative paragraphs. Living in Grand Rapids, MI, the home of the Amway Corporation, I liken Scot’s writing on the SoM to Amway soap: just a little pinch goes a long, long way. We’re considering chapter 8 on “oaths” (Matthew 5:33-37). I feel something of a dilemma. In this chapter and the one(s) to follow, we sense some of the Anabaptist ethos in Scot’s views. But here’s the rub: Is it really Anabaptist angles that shape Scot’s views or is it Jesus himself who has driven Scot to his conclusions? The last thing any of us need to do is think, “Well, I’m not Anabaptist, so Scot’s views don’t hold water for me.”

Before we tackle the content of this chapter, ponder Scot’s advice on Living the Story. Imagine you’re in court and you face “swearing in.” What do you do? Scot writes, “I would argue, then, that followers of Jesus are to tell the judge who requests an oath that they are bound by Jesus not to use oaths because their words are honest” (119). Oaths are complicit in a dishonest society where honesty has to be propped up with special words. That is, we have to promise to be honest. Jesus and his followers will have none of that. Utter, simple honesty is the given for those living in the kingdom of God.

What provokes the dilemma? Scot quotes Donald A. Hagner’s Word Biblical Commentary 33a: Matthew 1-13: “It is a mistake, however, to take a biblicistic approach to this passage that would disallow Christians from taking an oath, say in a court of justice. The issue is nothing less than and nothing more than truthfulness” (SoM, 117). Scot contends that such a view is pragmatically realistic and but tones down what Jesus said. “The irony is obvious:” writes Scot, “it is precisely public oaths that got Jesus’ concern going, and it was precisely public oaths that Jesus flat-out forbade for his followers” (117). Jesus in this pericope is not merely saying, “Let’s all just tell the truth.” We are not free to squeeze out the specific slice of life that Jesus has so emphatically in view: oaths adjudicated in a public court. Martin Luther’s public vs. private speech makes no sense of Jesus’ teaching.

Scot, once again, sets Jesus’ teaching within the greater and previous Story of God’s directives to Israel. Yes, the Old Testament describes oath-making and oath-keeping. Many Old and New Testament people took oaths, including Paul who often appealed to “God as my witness,” a definitive oath. Scot counsels, “But let’s come back to Jesus. When he was charged under oath to identify himself, he refused to speak (Matt 26:62-64). Was this because of kingdom honesty? I think so. What Jesus is teaching here [in Matt 5] is not the absolute prohibition of all oaths, for then he’d be against God’s ways of dealing with our redemption, but against legal oaths that reflect a distancing of God from what we do in scaling our obligations. He calls his followers into kingdom realities” (118). We confront Jesus’ unrelenting Ethic from Beyond. Jesus forbids his followers to prop up truth-telling with special or sacred words (e.g., heaven, earth, Jerusalem, our own head). We are called to let our yes be yes and our no, no. Utter, simple truth. James, Jesus’ brother, affirmed Jesus’ view (Jas. 5:12).

Jesus’ teaching is driven by a theology of God’s omnipresence. To keep from misusing God’s Name, Israel allowed substitute words for God’s Name. Jesus specifies four such terms. Jesus’ claim is that because God is present everywhere, any term used to represent God actually does just that…represents him. We cannot scale our obligations by multiple (higher and lower) references to God. No follower of Jesus should be required “to swear on a stack of Bibles” in order to tell the honest truth. Scot engages with the routine “what ifs.” What if you’re hiding an innocent person from persecutors? Do you have to let your yes be yes? An insightful appeal to Dietrich Bonhoeffer takes a bow introducing Bonhoeffer’s situational truth-telling proposal (116). Yet overall, I think Scot makes a firm, incontestable statement about this text: “Let’s be clear here: Jesus is talking about legal oaths and Jesus is against legal oaths” (117, emphasis Scot’s).

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