Promises, Promises

Promises, Promises

Three couples are meeting with me now, as they prepare to get married in September or October.  And one of the topics that we spend a lot of time talking about is the commitment that they will be making – the vows they will be taking.

Because vows are sacred promises – promises that are supposed to be kept.  And since the wedding vows include a line like “’til death do us part” or “as long as we both shall live” – there’s no question that God wants these marriages to last for the rest of the couples’ lives.

The Israelites made vows – often in conjunction with the seasonal sacrifices that accompanied the major feasts and festivals.  And in Numbers 30 – which comes right after God’s instructions for those sacrifices – God says: 

When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.

So vows to God and oaths to others are binding.  The point is made even more strongly in Deuteronomy 23:

If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, 

for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth.

Sometimes the vows were financial – a promise to give money or crops or animals or land to God.  Sometimes the vows were to serve God – as with the Nazarite vows.  In either case, they were to be kept in timely fashion.

Often people would make vows when they were dire straits – as was the case with Hannah, who was desperate to have a child.  Finally, she made a vow that if God would give her a son, she would give him to God to serve all the days of his life.  God responded by giving her a son – Samuel.

And Hannah fulfilled or “paid” her vow promptly.  As soon as she was done nursing Samuel, she took him to Eli the priest – and he became one of the great Hebrew prophets.

And that brings us to the uncomfortable part of today’s reading – God’s instructions that a father could nullify a vow made by his unmarried daughter, and a husband could negate a vow made by his wife.

At first glance, this seems to prove how patriarchal Israelite culture was in that day.  But some scholars point out that it is actually evidence of a shift toward a more egalitarian society – in that women could make vows and be held responsible for keeping them, as was the case with men.

But change came slowly in that era.  The pace was almost glacial.  But the times, they were a-changin’.  And the father’s or husband’s ability to negate a vow may have been less a matter of authority and more a matter of responsibility.  

Professor Yosef Fleischman reasons that vows did not have to be made in the Temple – and since women had limited access to the Temple, they would not have a priest or other religious official to consult about the wisdom of making such a vow.  The men had much better access to such counsel. 

Besides that, the man was clearly responsible in that day for his family – and an ill-advised or rash vow could have obligated him and cost the family their home or their livelihood.

This is not to say that men did not make bad decisions when making vows.  Perhaps the most awful example was Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11.  

Jephthah was a mighty warrior in the Israelite army.  Before he led his troops into battle with the Ammonites, he told the Lord, “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

The Israelites were victorious, and Jephthah returned home.  And what came out the door to greet him?  His only child – his daughter.

The debate has raged for 34-hundred years about what Jephthah did about his vow – which he never should have made, and which God never would have wanted him to keep.  Even John Calvin – whom we might expect to have taken a hard line on this, was remarkably gracious.  He wrote:

All vows, not legitimately or rightly made, as they are of no value with God, so they ought to have no force with us.

The point of all this is that we must be exceptionally careful about taking vows, taking oaths, and making promises.  Make wise ones, prudent ones, ones that we are able to keep – or don’t make them at all.  But haven’t we all made promises that were unwise?  Haven’t we all made threats – which are simply promises of consequences – that we had no intention of imposing?  Exasperated parents are especially guilty of making such threats:

If you do that again, I swear you won’t come out of your room until you leave for college!

Put your toys away or I’ll box them up and give them to Goodwill!

Experts on raising children would tell us that we should never make threats that we are not prepared to carry out.  If we do, our kids will lose trust in us and respect for us.

Likewise, swearing on something that is sacred to us, like our mother’s grave or on our own lives or – God forbid, in the name of God – cheapens or desecrates that which we is dearest to us.

Jesus knew the dangers of making vows – so as taught the crowd on the mountainside early in His ministry, he told the people not to make them at all.  We find this in our New Testament lesson today from Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 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 even one hair white or black.  Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Jesus knew that trying to take a promise to a higher level – to make it sound more serious or sincere – was just asking for trouble.

Perhaps we vow more than need to – because we live in a world in which people don’t keep their word, so we overcompensate by using expressions like, “I swear to God,” or, “As God is my witness,” to persuade others to believe us.  But invoking God’s name to back up our statements reduces the Creator and Ruler of the Universe to a heavenly character witness in the eyes of others.

Many Christians – like Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish – including the defendants in our nationally-famous beard-cutting case – will not swear on the Bible and say, “so help me God,” before giving testimony in court.  Obviously, atheists won’t, either.  

Jesus taught the people to give simple and straight answers – and leave it at that.  He wanted them to be people of truth – His truth – so that people would believe whatever His followers said.  

And when we go over the top in trying to convince people of our truthfulness in the most mundane of situations, will they believe us when we share the Good News of Jesus with them?  It may sound absurd, but I am certain that some overly-enthusiastic Christian has told an unbeliever, “You have to believe what God says in His Word, because it’s true. I swear to God!”  That circular reasoning will get us nowhere …

May we simply be people of our word – and use the fewest words possible.  Amen.