I have a confession to make. I have a hobby that really excites me. It's called 'reading.' I know, I know: people who know me never guess! But it's the truth! I love to spend my leisure time with a good book. Especially a history book. And especially-especially an obscure history book from the Middle Ages.
So lately, I've been reading this, the works of Liutprand – he was a bishop in the tenth century, and wrote a cranky and wonderfully biased story of the chaos of recent decades. So I've been reading it this week, and there was one story that shocked me so much, I can't help but tell you this morning. It's the story of the Babenberg Feud.
I'm sure you can't even walk into town without somebody reminding you of the Babenberg Feud, but just in case, let's turn the clock back eleven hundred years, to the land of the Eastern Franks that would someday be called 'Germany.' Those first generations after Charlemagne were a wild and woolly time, and two noble Franconian families were bent on grasping after power.
On one side were the Babenbergs. They were led by three brothers, all sons of Duke Henry, who faithfully served the German king Charles the Fat. Charles loved them. But after a reign spent trying to bribe the vicious Viking warriors of the Great Heathen Army for peace, Charles' renegade nephew Arnulf booted him from power. And King Arnulf wasn't so fond of the Babenberg kids. On the other side of the fight were the Conradines – the family of Duke Conrad the Elder, a close relative of Arnulf's queen.
To make room for Conrad to take power, King Arnulf gave the boot to Henry's brother Poppo. And so centuries and centuries before the Hatfields and McCoys, thus began a family feud that outlived Arnulf and lasted into the reign of his son, King Louis the Child. The Babenbergs and the Conradines struggled for power. Years of fighting led to the big climax: the Battle of Fritzlar, February 27, 906.
The Battle of Fritzlar brutalized both families. Two of the three Babenberg brothers died; so did Conrad the Elder. And in the wake of the horrid loss, the last of the Babenberg brothers, Adalbert, knew his days were numbered. And so he withdrew into his castle. He hunkered down. Try as they might, his enemies couldn't lay their hands on him. He repelled every siege, every attack. The barely teenaged King Louis summoned him to stand trial, but Adalbert wouldn't leave his castle.
And then one day, Adalbert received a very prestigious visitor. A man named Hatto. Now Hatto was not just any man. He was the archbishop of Mainz and guardian of the boy king. And he came, he said, as a messenger of peace. As the story goes, Hatto made his way to the castle – who refuses an archbishop? – and said to Adalbert that he should lay aside his rebellion and take an offer of mercy. “Take my advice and accord me your trust,” said the bishop, “Accept an oath by which you may without any hesitation leave the castle and return. If you don't believe the promises of my priesthood, at least don't distrust my oath, since I will arrange it so I will lead you back here, just as I will lead you safe and sound from this castle.”
Hatto swore a solemn oath to ensure Adalbert's safe passage and safe return to the castle. And Adalbert was incredibly relieved. Can you imagine how relieved he was, to think that a plea agreement was in the works, that he'd be set free by the king to return home in peace? So he accepted the sworn promise and asked Archbishop Hatto to eat with him. Hatto declined; he wanted to get on the road immediately. And so he started out, and Adalbert couldn't afford to stay behind. And so off the two went, hand in hand.
After they'd gone a small distance, Hatto turned to Adalbert. Hatto said he regretted not having gotten a meal while he had the chance, because he was awfully hungry. Adalbert felt bad – his castle wasn't so far behind them – and suggested they go grab a quick lunch. And so they did, hand in hand. No sooner had they finished the meal than they traveled to go see King Louis that very day, Hatto leading Adalbert all the way. And immediately, the king summoned the judges, and they put Adalbert on trial. Finding him guilty of treason, they sentenced him to lose his head. And as guards dragged him away in chains, he saw Hatto and called on him to keep his promise.
You can almost see the smirk on Hatto's face as he says, “I promised you would be led out from your castle just as hale and hearty as you would be led back; and I perceived I had done that when I led you back into the castle safe and sound right after having led you out!”
Hatto was a corrupt, self-serving archbishop. His promise had been a ruse, designed only to trap the hapless hero and abuse his trust. Adalbert had been tricked. And soon Adalbert was dead. It was a millennium, a century, and a decade ago this very month – September 906.
Nearly nine hundred years before that, the Lord they both claimed to serve sat on the mountainside and spoke words of life – words that, if obeyed, would have blessed the Babenbergs and the Conradines and even Hatto. We've been learning these words of life for over a month now.
We've listened to Jesus declare us – misfits by the world's standards, misfits by the Pharisees' standards – to be the target audience of his kingdom. We've heard the call to a mission of being salt and light for the world around us. And Jesus has started opening up the Law to us – clearing away the misconceptions, showing us where the Law's aiming at, and offering us the Spirit to get us there. Jesus showed us that when the Law condemned murder, God's heart for us was to dig out our anger and contempt and replace it with peace and forgiveness. Jesus showed us that when the Law condemned adultery, God's heart for us was to dig out our lust and replace it with holy desires in chaste marriage or celibate singleness.
And now Jesus turns to another teaching of the Law, about oaths and vows. But this one, he paraphrases. What the Law actually says is, “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:12). Forget about the 'falsely' part for a minute. What does it mean to “swear by his name” at all? What is an oath for?
The whole point of an oath was to call a god to bear witness to the truth of what you were saying. You were getting the god involved. And by implication, you were inviting them to curse you if your words proved untrue. “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye” – literally, that phrase means calling the crucified Jesus to witness the heartfelt sincerity of your words and saying that, if you're lying, then may you be tortured to death. Not exactly a kid-friendly rhyme, now, is it? But that's what it means. Because an oath means getting the god involved, staking a divine reputation on guaranteeing your truthfulness by punishing you if you fall short.
But people could use oaths to manipulate, especially if they didn't take them that seriously. In all sorts of times and places, people would use oaths to drive home a point. After all, people should take you pretty seriously if you're willing to get a god involved and put your life on the line, right? So in a Greek marketplace, you'd hear, “Of course these jugs will hold up, I call Zeus as witness!” In Babylon, “By Marduk, you'll never find a better price than this.” A Philistine merchant might swear by Dagon that you can trust him about the quality of his goods or the fairness of his price, or any number of things. It became just a normal bargaining tool. It became a mundane fact of life. People used it flippantly, lying and stapling their god's name to it.
We do it still today. “I swear to God, if you kids don't stop fighting back there, I will turn this car around!” Instead of, “I swear to God,” the people of ancient Israel would say, “As surely as the LORD lives.” And they often did so... falsely.
And in the Bible, the LORD has some pretty strong objections to that. He tells us not to use his name falsely, because that makes a holy name – his very reputation – like some common thing, to do with as we please. We drag his name through the mud, so to speak, for our own gain – and he is not okay with that. It's a serious sin. In fact, this is a big part of what he meant when he said, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain, for the LORD shall not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Taking his name in vain means attaching it to our own agendas – playing the 'God card' to serve our purposes, just the way we're prone to.
The LORD tells us that we aren't supposed to invoke his name frivolously, the way pagans did with their gods. The children of Israel were to be very careful with how they used his name. They weren't to attach anything false to it. They weren't to prophesy their own imaginings – pretending the LORD endorsed a message he didn't speak.
But of course we see that today plenty, too. How many so-called “prophesy experts” get away with calculating the end-times over and over again without losing any fans? How many televangelists jump on any disaster to explain their personal gut-instinct to why God sent it? How many politicians have figured out just where in any speech to mention God so as to flatter one more key demographic? How many Christians dress up their demands and requests in extra-'religious' language to try to get their own way, leveraging God in service to their own interests?
That's why it's written in Ecclesiastes, “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear” (Ecclesiastes 5:5-7). In other words, if you keep making flippant oaths or vows, if you keep taking the name of the LORD in vain, he won't hold you guiltless – now there's an understatement. In fact, he'll be “angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands.”
But the children of Israel were a lot like us. They heard the LORD say not to use his name in vain. A good way to do that, they thought, is not to say his name out loud at all. Let the priests have a monopoly on that. Instead of calling him “Yahweh,” we'll gloss over that by saying, “the LORD,” or simply, “the Name,” HaShem. For some people, that was enough. Avoid those sacred syllables, and you've dealt with the problem and can say whatever you want. The rabbis said that wasn't quite good enough. Any time you said, “the LORD,” or “God,” or “the Name,” you were still invoking him, still calling him to witness.
So what do the people do? They turn into lawyers. They wrangle over technicalities. They start hunting for more loopholes. They do exactly what Archbishop Hatto did: they find ways to make it seem like they're giving an oath, but leaving themselves a handy escape clause. One way to do that, they figured, it the way he did it: by using misleading terms in the oath. Seem to promise one thing, but actually promise a lot less. Or put in there a condition nobody notices. Make the terms and conditions so long, so convoluted, that people get lost. That's how the game is played, right? And so Archbishop Hatto could leave himself a loophole and think that he didn't do anything wrong. After all, he kept the letter of what he said; what fault is it of his if Adalbert took it the wrong way, if Adalbert expected more than Hatto's words literally offered?
But there was another trick that people used in the time of Jesus. And that was this. They noticed that the Law talked a lot about what they vowed “to Yahweh your God” – and they knew that anything they vowed to the LORD, they had to follow through with. So far, so good. That's why Jesus quotes the paraphrase of the Law. What the crowd had heard wasn't the Law itself, straight from the source; it was the Law as twisted and distorted by their teachers (Matthew 5:33). And they put emphasis on that phrase, “to the LORD.” “Oh,” they decided, “it's just what we swear to the LORD that the Law requires us to make good on.” They found that way of putting things awfully convenient.
“Aha, a loophole,” they thought. “So then, what if we swear on or to other things? What if we swear on heaven? Or on earth? Or on Jerusalem? Or on the temple? Or on the altar? Or on our own head, or our own heart? If we do that, surely we're in the clear. Because,” people thought, “if an oath depends on invoking a god, getting him involved by mentioning his name or title, then if we avoid that, we're in the clear. We haven't literally mentioned him, so we can say whatever we want. Best of all, we can find ways to say it that make people think we're super-serious, but without bringing God into it or putting anything at risk!”
So the scribes and teachers had to sort through which things carried how much weight. Don't swear by God, because he's holy; swear instead by heaven or earth, which aren't. Don't swear by the gold of the temple, but you can swear by the temple itself. Don't swear by the sacrifices on the altar, but you can swear by the altar itself (Matthew 23:16, 18).
And it's exactly this kind of reasoning that Jesus is rejecting here. Jesus says that we've been thinking about it all wrong. Our fatal assumption is that God is only involved when we explicitly say so – when we mention him by name, or by a title like 'LORD' or 'God.' Our fatal assumption is that the default is for God to be uninterested and unconcerned. In other words, our fatal assumption is that everything that isn't explicitly 'religious' is just 'secular.'
Jesus disagrees – and strongly. If you swear by heaven, God has an interest in that – after all, he lives there! He has his throne there, so if you say, “I swear by heaven,” you're swearing by God anyway (Matthew 5:34; 23:22). If you swear by earth, God has an interest in that – after all, if heaven is like God's throne, earth is like his footstool. God has constant contact with the earth; so if you say, “I swear by earth,” you're still swearing by God. The same with Jerusalem. If you swear by Jerusalem, God has an interest in that, because God loves Jerusalem – it's “the city of the Great King,” it's his city, so you're swearing by God anyway (Matthew 5:35).
And the same goes for what's in Jerusalem. If you swear by the gift on the altar, it's the altar that makes it holy anyway, “so whoever swears by the altar swears by it and everything on it” (Matthew 23:20). And if you swear by the temple and avoid mentioning the sacred gold, well, the temple is what makes the gold sacred, not vice versa, Jesus says (Matthew 23:17). And why is the temple sacred at all? Because it's God's dwelling place. So of course God is involved if you mention the temple: “Whoever swears by the temple, swears by it and by him who dwells in it,” Jesus said (Matthew 23:21).
In light of all that, some people retreated into just swearing by their own head. But Jesus effectively asks, “Who owns your head? It's not you. If you owned your head, if you had power over it, you'd be able to change black hairs to white and white hairs to black – not just in outward appearance with dye, like you do today, but you'd be able to speed up or reverse the effects of age and time. You don't have power over your head. God does. You can't make even one hair change what it is” (cf. Matthew 5:36). So even swearing by your own head is to mention something where God has a concern. In other words, Jesus is saying, even when you keep things as personal and secular as you can, God is still already involved.
Today, we have a new trick we've invented. We've stopped mentioning any objects at all. In court, we don't swear to God; we swear to... well, we don't specify; we just ask God to help us be truthful. We do it in everyday life, too. We say, “Honest, I swear!” We leave off the object. Or we use the words, “I promise” – get rid of the outer shape of the oath altogether. And so we start thinking that saying, “I promise” is less serious than “I swear,” and “I swear” is less serious than “I swear to God.” We think that God is less concerned with what we promise than what we swear, and less concerned with what we swear generically than what we swear to him.
But Jesus has news for us: That isn't true. God is concerned with every word that comes out of a mouth he created, using sound he invented, with sound waves promulgating through air he owns and operates. What we call 'secular,' 'mundane,' he calls his.
Jesus bids us ask some hard questions instead. Why did people have to invent this thing called an oath – why did we ever feel the need to try to call God to witness and enforce some of our words in the first place? Because we speak words that might be false. We make statements that are untrue – maybe lies outright, maybe exaggerations meant to mislead. And because we exaggerate, because we lie, because we play fast and loose with the facts, we reduce the trust between us and our neighbors. Our own mere say-so isn't good enough. That's why we invented oaths – so we'd have more than our mere say-so; we could enlist God's say-so to back us up. And it's why we invented promises – as if to say, “I know I say things that aren't true, but I'm singling this one out as special and different!” That's what an oath or a vow or a promise does: it singles out one statement as truthful and serious, amidst all the nonsense we otherwise try to get away with. And because the human heart is so bent on doing that, we've had that whole history of seeking loopholes, watching God close them, and then trying to dig new ones.
Jesus aims, not just to close the loopholes, but to remind us what the tapestry looks like. Where does all this untruthfulness come from? We just said it: the human heart. Like Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). It isn't something we can regulate with rules, any more than the age-old rules against murder and adultery have cured anger and lust. That's not to say the rules were useless – they did much to limit some of the social damage that unchecked anger and lust had. But the rules in themselves didn't eliminate the problem. They couldn't. They warned against the problem's biggest fruit, and they were meant to point us to the problem's deepest root.
So when God kept closing loopholes – telling us not to take his name in vain, and so forth – what aim was he trying to accomplish? What kind of people was he trying to make? A people with new hearts – honest hearts. Instead of spelling out a new set of guidelines, Jesus tells us, “Do not take any oath at all” – or, maybe we should take it, “Do not take oaths for just anything” (Matthew 5:34). Jesus then goes on to say, “Let your 'Yes' be 'yes' and your 'No' be 'no'; anything more than this comes from the Evil One” (Matthew 5:37).
In other words, be people who say clearly what they mean – no wiggle room, no trickery, no lies. Be people whose every word carries as much weight as a sacred vow. Be so honest, so truthful, that those around you will learn that they can trust you without any verbal enhancements; they can learn to take you at your word without fearing they overlooked a loophole in what you said. When you mean yes, say yes; when you mean no, say no.
All our hedging, all our loopholes, all our contracts full of legalese, all our fine distinctions – that comes from the devil, who's been a liar and thief and murderer from the first day we met – “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). And whenever we bend the truth and look for ways to deceive and manipulate, we become imitators of Satan rather than imitators of God. Because God said, “You shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another” (Leviticus 19:11).
The past few Sundays, we've imagined what it would look like if the church were a community without anger, where we always treated our neighbors as bearing the image of God and each other as fellow priests and kings in Christ. We've imagined what it would look like if the church were a community without lust, where we always valued God's design for marriage and learned to be content with relationships God's given us.
But the truth is, throughout history, the visible church has often betrayed Jesus' ideal. Where Jesus urged us to be set free from anger, people calling themselves Christians went forth in war. In the course of the Crusades, entire communities were slaughtered in God's name – perhaps the vainest way it can be taken. Where Jesus urged us to be set free from lust, so-called Christian Europe was filled with prostitution and adultery – so much so, Pope Alexander VI fathered numerous illegitimate children while pope! And, we have to admit, where Jesus urged us to be set free from untruthfulness and trickery, the visible church has often turned its back on that, too. Remember: Hatto was an archbishop! And yet he was rash with his mouth – and so, often, are we, as well.
And the vast gap between the history of the so-called church and the Sermon on the Mount has become one of the greatest reasons non-believers cite for not wanting anything to do with the gospel. Which is a great shame, because Jesus is describing what a healthy church should look like, how a kingdom-ready people behave. And there have been times where we've succeeded, where we've resisted temptation, where we've followed the Spirit and been salt and light in the world and actually changed the culture so much that so-called post-Christians take for granted the common assumptions of a gospel-touched world.
But what would it look like if the church were a community that had no need for oaths and promises? What if we were a people who always spoke the truth in love, or who learned to let our words be few (Ecclesiastes 5:2)? What if we didn't just avoid intentional falsehood, but accidental falsehood?
Because remember, Jesus said, “On the day of judgment, people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). That includes all the cruel jokes we make at the expense of public figures. It includes all the rash, hot-tempered wishes for violent retribution against criminals accused in the newspaper. But it also includes all the rumors we pass along, all the gossip we repeat about our neighbors. It includes all the distorted news and propaganda, all the conspiracy theories and fabrications we repost on social media. It includes all the ideas we just didn't bother to check out before repeating them to others. All that careless talk comes from the same place as oath-breaking.
Because what God is looking for is hearts that value the truth – so much that they won't betray it, so much they won't distort it, so much they won't ignore it. Those are the hearts the Spirit wants to grow and cultivate within each one of us. And a people defined together by those hearts – that's a powerful force in the world.
That's who God wants us to be: not just a conciliatory church freed from anger and for forgiveness, not just a chaste church freed from lust and for contentment and joy, but a candid church freed from oath-breaking and for love of truth, for trustworthy honesty. That's where the Law has always been aiming: at the heart of the God of love who is himself the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.
May God help us, by his Word and his Spirit, to speak no careless words but to be fully devoted to the truth always. Amen.