Lent, Day 12 — Pinky Swear??

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Pinky swear??

Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord. But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool. You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king. And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.
(Matthew 5:33-37)

  1. Binding ourselves with verbal promises is not as much in fashion these days. People used to swear on their mother’s graves, or by their ancestors. Kids on the playground may still pinky swear, or say “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” But in the adult modern world, if it isn’t written down in a contract, it’s worthless. Even on a contract, the small print may let the more powerful party wiggle out of their promises.
  2. This is one of the side-effects of widespread literacy. We put more stock in words when they are written down, because they seem permanent. There is a record. People of the ancient world put more stock in spoken promises, because written words could be manipulated, but the past cannot be changed. Calling on God or your ancestors to verify your words was like casting a spell.
  3. Whether we are adults or children, ancient or modern, we all bargain with God in prayer. “If you’ll do this for me,” we promise Source of All Being, “I’ll never tease my sister again and go to church every Sunday.” As if we were negotiating with the Breath of the Universe.
  4. Jesus’s words about these kinds of promises are not new. Deuteronomy 23:21 says, “When you make a promise to the Lord your God, don’t put off making good on it, because the Lord your God will certainly be expecting it from you; delaying would make you guilty. Now if you simply don’t make any promises, you won’t be guilty of anything.”
  5. But why should we need to invoke such magical thinking, or cast these spells on ourselves? Does it mean the rest of the time, when we are not pinky-swearing, our words are fungible? Are we only accountable when we cross our hearts and hope to die, and the rest of the time we are free to traffic in B.S.?
  6. Jesus’s language here is powerful: Earth, heaven, Jerusalem, and even the hair on your head are sacred. Why sully them with our negotiations?
  7. Talking about making solemn pledges may sound quaint to our modern ears, but consider how much we are surrounded by fake news, insincere salesmanship, and spin. Harry Frankfurt’s philosophical essay On Bullshit talks about how there is a difference between lying and B.S. A liar, he says, actually cares about the truth because he wants to convince you of its opposite. A bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t value the truth at all, and uses words to intentionally create ambiguity.
  8. In the new community of prophets Jesus wants to create, there is no room for a casual relationship to truth.
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