Those that have been in the church for a while know the scene all too well: The head of the building committee gives the announcement on stage that the plans for the renovation are complete and it will only cost a few million dollars. The congregational heartstrings are pulled and the people are asked to fill out a pledge card.
In other services I have seen pledge cards for following a process, or keeping a diet, or reading a book. The Pharisees also made pledges, but sometimes it was all for show. Our woe for today brings us to Matthew 23:16-22:
Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.
The Pharisees were using technicalities to make oaths and vows that they never intended to keep. Jesus is quick to scorn them for the callous use of the temple in their swearing an oath, but instead says that swearing by any part of the temple was the same as swearing before God Himself. Jesus also warns about this condition in the sermon on the mount:
Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil (Matthew 5:33-37).
James recounts this wisdom from Jesus in his epistle: But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment (James 5:12). Jesus may not have been making a blanket condemnation of vows, but rather the lighthearted nature by which the Pharisees took these oaths. Indeed as we find many oaths in scripture between people and God as well as between God and people, some of the oaths we find are tragic such was the case with Jephthah. Jesus was telling us to be careful that a vow is a serious matter, and one that is not to be taken lightly.
In Our Day
Vows and oaths (though we rarely call them by those names) are in vast array in our day, though mostly centered on money. We will look at a few of these:
Co-Signing a Loan
Vows and oaths in our day take on many forms. One common vow that gets many Americans in trouble is that of co-signing a loan. Proverbs declares:
My son, if you have become surety for your neighbor, Have given a pledge for a stranger, If you have been snared with the words of your mouth, Have been caught with the words of your mouth, Do this then, my son, and deliver yourself; Since you have come into the hand of your neighbor, Go, humble yourself, and importune your neighbor. Give no sleep to your eyes, Nor slumber to your eyelids; Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hunter’s hand And like a bird from the hand of the fowler. (Proverbs 6:1-5)
Co-signing is not very wise and few, if any, situations would find it merited. Dave Ramsey warns about co-signing a loan for anyone, saying that it usually goes wrong. It reminds me of a time when I was working in the restaurant in college and one of our high school students asked me if I would co-sign a loan to put a $2000 stereo in his car (worth only about $500). I said that first, that would not be a wise financial decision, and secondly, he should ask his parents. He said that his dad already turned him down on on co-signing. I (still not a Christian and not very nice) replied that if his father did not trust him with a co-loan, what in the WORLD what make me do it?!? Do not co-sign but if you did, follow the advice of this proverb and get out of it.
I made a pledge once to a ministry for a certain amount of money and about three months into the pledge I lost my job. My money became limited and I had a fairly sizable pledge. I chose to do the right thing and immediately pay the balance for the pledge before other uses of the money reared themselves, and I made a phone call to the organization to make sure they knew that I was not going to be able to further give until things stabilized. They offered to release the pledge, but in this case my integrity was more important than the money and I did have the available funds. I would have been better off to not make any pledge, and to this day, I decide every month what money to give and to whom, for I can adjust my giving as needed since I live on a flexible income.
Personal Growth Vow
This may be called a vow, a pledge, or a commitment, but it is all the same: a commitment to read a book, pray daily, or engage in some type of (usually) church-sponsored growth plan. I am not a fan of these because sometimes we find the book we are to read to be crazy or else life becomes crazy. If I want to commit to reading the Bible every day, I can easily do that without making a vow because a vow before God is a serious thing and it would dishonor my Father if I were unable to keep it. Though I do make a commitment to read scripture every day, there were a few days I missed for some extremely good reasons. In these areas, I will look at a book or a prayer plan, but I have not seen a system that I believe will bring me closer to God that I am willing to displease my Lord if something else gets in the way of a cleverly devised plan.
Swearing His Name in Vain
We are no doubt aware that one commandment is to not use the Lords name in vain (Exodus 20:7), but what Jesus was condemning in this woe was swearing an oath in vain. This can take the form of not thinking things through as is usually the case in the above three situations, but the greater warning here is that every idle word will be judged. When we make statements like 'I swear' attached to statement in casual conversation that is taking the Lord's name in vain by swearing by Him without reverence or regard. Let us watch those words.
Vows are serious business with God. We need not abolish them permanently from our life, but we do need to remember that a vow is a serious, measured commitment before God Himself. Let us be careful about borrowing money, using it only for important purchases like a home, and never co-sign. The wisest advice I can give in regards to a ministry is to decide each month what you can give from your blessings, and do not commit to anything for the long-term. Be careful with pledges or commitments for our spiritual growth, but rather talk with God about what to do and do it; we do not need to add any complexity to it. Finally, we should seek to scrub our speech from words like, "I swear" and "Oh God" and other idle words. Let us not swear it, and let our yes be yes, and our no, no.