“You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it” (Matthew 23:19–22, esv).
One of the greatest disappointments we experience is when people don’t follow through on their promises. They commit to action, but their commitment is conditional. What they really mean is they’ll fulfill their promise if it works out for them.
Jesus unloads on promise-breaking hypocrisy. He points out the lengths people will go to create a technicality or loophole to squirm out of commitments. Too often we want the benefits of a promise without the cost.
In Matthew 23:16, the word swears does not describe cursing but rather an oath or vow. To swear is to make a solemn promise, to give your word. The Pharisees had a sneaky, “fingers-crossed-behind-their-backs” clause in their commitments, and Jesus called their bluff. They would swear by the temple, but when challenged for their failure to keep their promises would respond, “Ah, but I didn’t swear by the gold in the temple” (23:17). Or they’d swear by the altar, but when challenged again would claim, “Ah, but I didn’t swear by the gift on the altar” (23:18)—or worse, “but I didn’t swear by God, who dwells in the temple.”
The Pharisees expected to be released from their promises based on hidden technicalities. Sound familiar in our culture of broken commitments? Jesus utterly crushed this nonsense and sorted out the nuances of honesty for a bunch of hypocrites. “And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.” Could He be any clearer?
People of integrity keep their word, regardless of the cost. And significant commitments have one thing in common: they get tested. Whether it’s a commitment to our Savior for eternity or to a spouse for life, those promises will not be left unchallenged. Psalm 15:4 commends the person “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.”
We all face times when it would be a lot easier to go in a different direction. We have to expect that if we give our word on something, it will cost us. Promises have been described like babies: easy to make and hard to deliver.
Consider your promises to God and others. What have you committed to the Lord? To your spouse? How faithfully do you follow through? How are you tempted to look for technicalities to invalidate your commitments?
Pay what you vow. Deliver what you promise, or don’t promise. That’s what sincere, honest people do. Hypocrites squirm out of promises they don’t want to keep.
God, thank You that even when I am faithless, You are faithful. You always keep Your promises, and I can depend on You. For all the times I’ve made promises to You and haven’t kept them, I’m sorry. I feel humbled by how You faithfully, gently draw me back from my wandering and hypocrisy. I want to become more and more a person of my word, even when it costs me. Help me to make wise, thoughtful promises and to keep those promises. Please grow me into someone on whom others can count. In Jesus’ faithful name I pray, amen.