Graded Scale

Matthew 23:16-22

16“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 

17You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 

18And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 

19You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 

20So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 

21And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 

22And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.

As Jesus continues to expose the Pharisees wrong thinking, He pulls no punches. As the story tracks along, we are inside of Passion Week. Jesus has only a few more days left on earth in His human body. It’s time to warn the people in the strongest terms about the pitfalls of imitating the Pharisees. In Matthew 15:14 Jesus had warned the people much earlier in His ministry about the message of the Pharisees. “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Best to stay out of the pit.

Apparently, the Pharisees had an elaborate system for “oath taking”. What it boiled down to was an escape clause for lying. The big one was swearing an oath on God’s name. Anything said that was prefaced by “I swear to God” had better be true because you were inviting Him to strike you down if it wasn’t. But – and here’s where it gets tricky – if you swore by something that might be associated with God, but not God Himself, you had a little more wiggle room. So you might swear by Heaven, or by the Temple, or the altar in the Temple, or by the doors of the Temple, or by the steps leading up to the Temple. You get the idea. The further you got from God, the more suspect your oath might be. Three times in today’s passage Jesus calls them “blind fools” and now you see why. They were indeed headed for a pit – a deep one with fire in it!

The verse that grabbed my attention today is verse 21. I couldn’t help but notice that when Jesus describes the Temple He doesn’t necessarily say that God lives there. It only says, “by him who dwells in it.” The pronoun there doesn’t necessarily point to God. He does however make it very clear that God lives in heaven. I wonder if the Pharisees picked up on that one – or maybe I’m just seeing things that aren’t there.

For us today this passage pokes at our own use of oaths. It is not something to be taken lightly. With this passage and others we find that Jesus is crystal clear about swearing by anything. Simply tell the truth all the time and you won’t have to worry about it.