The Awkward Freedom of Saying What You Mean
The Awkward Freedom of Letting Your Yes Be Yes
“What’s your angle?”
“Angle? I don’t have an angle. I’m just trying to love people like Jesus does.”
“Yeah.” The homeless guy looked at the eager young zealot with street savvy cynicism. “Sounds like your angle is you’re trying to feel good about yourself.”
The young man stammered with embarrassment.
The homeless man laughed, “Calm down son. I appreciate the sandwich. Just don’t pretend that you love me.”
The hurt caused by over-promising
You may not have ever been homeless, but I bet you can relate to the story. We’ve all felt that sting when a religious person came to us in a time of crisis and promised undying support but then were nowhere to be found.
“I’ll pray for you.” “Let me know if I can do anything to help.” In the modern religious world, phrases like this usually mean: “Your situation makes me feel bad and I need to say something to make myself feel better.”
Anyway, that’s a bitter rant…
The point is, religion often leads people to make grand promises that they have no ability to fulfill. I don’t know why this is a thing, but it is a thing that sucks donkey dongs.
What Jesus had to say about making promises
Turns out, this religious over-promising thing was a thing way back in Jesus’ day too.
Only it was a more elaborate thing.
Jesus talks about it in his famous “Sermon on the Mount” (which he probably preached over and over so it was also “the Sermon on the Boat, Hillside, Meadow, By the River, at Jack’s house, etc.”)
Anyway, if you’ve been burned by the religion, imagine this story and laugh with me at what Jesus said in Matthew 5:33-37:
Jesus describes the ancient Jewish cultural norm of making oaths. I’m not sure exactly how much the average ancient Jewish farmers were going around making oaths with each other, but it was definitely a big part of their religious culture. The religious elite were great at making spectacles of the vows they had taken which supposedly made them superior to ordinary folks. They had developed a massive number of rules around oath taking. And like rules in religion always do, they had gotten insanely out of control. The religious leaders had heated arguments over what you should swear by and what all the other rules were surrounding how to make super holy religious oaths.
Jesus brings this debate up and everyone was expecting him to take sides or add a more complicated rule. Instead, he said: “You know all that oath taking y’all are so caught up in?... Yeah, don’t do that”.
That’s kind of like if the Pope said, “Yeah. I’m over all this reciting stuff.” Or a Southern Baptist preacher said, “Y’all go ahead and have a beer. It’s really no big deal.”
The Cultural Context
(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).
See, ancient people believed that if they broke an oath they would be cursed by God. The whole process started with some commands God gave people about being completely devoted to him. They made vows to God, committing themselves to him.
Humorously, this practice then devolved through the years into elaborate rituals for gaining trust or validating plans. “I swear to God Almighty that I will repay you.” But people were freaked out about making oaths that involved God directly because they felt they’d be cursed if they broke their oath. “I swear to heaven.” No that’s still scary. “I swear by the earth”. No…”uhmm I swear by Jerusalem”. No… “I swear by my head”.
It started out in the beginning with the idea of: “I am making this oath. I am fully committed to it with everything in me. It is a promise I am making to God.”
And became something along the lines of : “I’m totally going to do this thing I’m promising you. I just don’t want to 100% commit. I’m like 80% in. So…I’d prefer not to bring down a curse on me. I’m going to swear by my favorite shoes.”
How this applies to us
Jesus said, listen guys. You need to quit with the oath stuff. Live your lives in such a way that every time you say “Yes” you mean yes and when you say “No” you mean “No”.
Which sounds easier, but it is incredibly hard, awkward, freeing and much nicer.
Nothing Jesus ever taught was about how to put on a good show to make others think you are super nice and religious. He always dealt with the heart of the matter.
Can you imagine how you’d have to live your life in order to let your “Yes” always be “yes” and your “no” always be “no”? It would mean being totally honest with ourselves about everything.
My husband and I tried to raise our kids that way with always letting no mean no and yes mean yes. Turns out you need to say “maybe” a whole lot.
I think it did build a lot of trust though. Our kids knew that when we said “no” we really meant it and had a good reason. But when we said maybe, we had to own our reasons for wanting to say no.
Out in society, it’s a lot harder to let our no’s always mean “No” and yes/yes. But it’s also super healthy. It helps me create better boundaries. When I’m committed to actually doing what I say, then I am not so quick to say I will do something.
Also, when someone shares a problem with me. I’m quick to empathize but slow to offer solutions. The no=no principle helped me be more willing to listen because I had to own how little I can actually do to fix anyone. Turns out nobody needed me to fix them anyway! People seem to really enjoy just being honestly understood.
And as for giving a sandwich to a homeless guy. Calm down, sit and eat with him and let him know that you value him as a fellow human being created in the image of God. Don’t pretend you love him like your mama. Don’t say stuff you don’t really mean.
It is tough but rewarding. I promise …usually…I don’t know you might get mugged by the homeless guy. In the end though, it really is freeing to be able to leave truly honest with yourself and others about your intentions.
And yeah, I’m growing in this one too. Maybe the next section of Matthew will be about something I have down… *
*(It’s not…it’s about loving your enemies)