Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye

A lovely sentiment, that.  And all the more interesting for its supposedly religious origins (well, at least the “cross” part of it.)

We have interesting customs for trying to convince others that we’re telling the truth.  “Cross my heart!” people will say, tracing the sign of the cross on their chests.  And while we sometimes cross our fingers for good luck, we also do it to absolve ourselves of a lie.  Legend has it that Christians would do this to avoid persecution, denying Christ to someone’s face while cross their fingers behind their backs.

But I doubt many kids think about that when they hold crossed fingers behind them.  It’s just a way of creating the comfortable illusion that we can lie with impunity.  I even remember thinking, as a child, that it would be way too obvious to put my hand behind my back while telling a fib: wouldn’t crossing my legs at the ankles do just as well?

When you think about it, this is all rather odd.  Apparently, Jesus thought so too.

In the previous post, we looked at the seven woes Jesus levied against the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocritical and self-deluding form of religiousness.  In one of the woes, he deconstructed the senselessness of their rules about taking oaths, and castigated them for their spiritual blindness:

Woe to you, blind guides!  You say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.”  You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?  You also say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.”  You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?  Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it.  And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.  And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.  (Matt 23:16-22, NIV)

If we give the Pharisees the benefit of the doubt, we might imagine that they were trying to solve a very real problem: people were making promises, but not always keeping them.  Sometimes, they would make an oath: “I’ll pay you back, I promise.  I swear on a stack of bibles!”  (Ah, but you see, that’s only binding if you swear on a stack of King James Bibles.  Too bad for you if you don’t know that.)

How might one sort through all this superstitious, self-serving nonsense?  One way would be to do the kind of rule-making at which the Pharisees excelled.  But Jesus considered that to be just another instance of the blind leading the blind.  Their hair-splitting regulations were meaningless: swearing by the gold was tantamount to swearing by temple, which in turn meant swearing by God.  And woe to the one who dared to swear by God without taking it seriously.

All of this has to be understood against the background of what Jesus had already taught about taking oaths:

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’  But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.  All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.  (Matt 5:33-37, NIV)

Forget all the useless formulas, Jesus says.  Don’t preface your declarations with “As God is my witness…!”  It comes down to this: if you make a promise, keep it.  Period.  Speak the truth at all times; be known for your honesty and trustworthiness.  When you say “yes,” mean yes.  When you say “no,” mean no.  Anything else is of the devil rather than God.

Boy, have I got some work to do.

I know how to say something that says nothing; don’t you?  I know how to say things in a way that leaves me a back door: “Well, technically, I never actually said…”  Or, “I know I said something like that, but I never promised.”  Chances are you’ve done the same.

I know, misunderstandings happen.  Some statements are taken as promises even when they weren’t meant as such.  And, of course, not everything that is true needs to be said: “You look like you’ve put on a few pounds since the last time I saw you” is an observation best kept to yourself, even if it’s true.

But the point is that we should live in such a way that no one would need us to cross our hearts, just as we ourselves would feel no need to do so.

Say what you mean.

Do what you say.

And do it without needles.