3rd Commandment - Misrepresenting God
7 “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you: Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’.
In the church of my childhood, I always heard the 3rd Commandment preached as an admonition to not cuss at God or to say derogatory things in the name of God, such as the popular “OMG”. After a deeper study of this passage, however, I must agree that this passage is not nearly as concerned with how often we type OMG in a social media post as it is with how often we clam to represent the very being of God, when in fact, we have no idea who God is or how God works in the world.
There is a clear difference between being made in the image and likeness of God and creating God in our own image. But in some sense, this is at the heart of this commandment. We have become experts at anthropomorphizing God or making God into human form and all its many guises. We give God all of our human traits but forget that God wants us to be holy and righteous, which we are not, most of the time.
Philip Gulley put it this way, “You know that you have created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.” There seems to be a genuine disconnect between the God we create in our minds versus the God who created us – and no matter how hard we try to conflate the two, they can never be melded together.
No, the 3rd Commandment isn’t just about talking smack, it is about the role we assume when we pretend to know the mind of God. So, how does this relate to our passage from Matthew.
In the ancient world, swearing a vow to God was as good as a signed contract in the present day. If someone vowed to turn over possession of a piece of land and swore to God that it would happen, then the intent was that it would happen. However, by swearing falsely, you make yourself and God out to be a liar. These two passages are linked in that God doesn’t want any kind of misrepresentation going on, whether it is misrepresenting God or one’s self. At the heart of this issue is that when we misrepresent God, people will look at us and be immediately turned away from God because of that mischaracterization, or they will have high expectations regarding something that God never promised. When it doesn’t happen, then we’ll be seen a untrustworthy and not a great emissary for God.
On the other hand, if we speak the truth in love and only guarantee those things which we know we can do and under no circumstances speak for God, our lives will be much less chaotic. This is where Jesus proclaims, “Let your word be ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ We don’t need to complicate the equation with a lot of flowery language. Nor does Jesus tell us we need to explain ourselves to death. When asked a question or when promising to do something, we need to bring our answer back to the bare-bones-minimum, yes and no.
Ultimately, this is about intent. We have a saying in our house, especially when I say, “I didn’t intend to,” (usually something less than stellar), and the reply is always, “Yes, but you also didn’t intend NOT to.” As much as we would like to believe that we get it right all the time, we don’t. We make mistakes. We don’t complete things on time. We fail to follow through on all kinds of issues. At the outset, we are often looking for ways to get out of the task rather than lean into it. Image, though, if we could be more honest about what we are and are not willing to do. Our honesty, our ability to say yes OR no could make all the difference in the world in how we function in society.
We are setting clear intentions with the hope that our actions will follow rightly.
This is huge. It cuts through all the clutter and noise that usually surrounds some of the decisions we make. We are better able to actually follow through with what we commit to without making any kind of false statement. Especially when it comes to speaking on behalf of God—even as a minister, I do not want that responsibility of trying to read or interpret the mind of God. Scripture provides me with the accounts of many who came before me who wrestled with all the same issues we do. They understood just like we need to that God is so much more expansive than we can imagine. I cannot even begin to wrap my head around the enormity of God and the intimacy of God.
When I preach, I provide commentary and teaching on the written words of scripture, my own lived experience, and the lived experiences of others. Sometimes I catch glimpses of the reality of God, but my language is woefully inadequate to ever articulate what those glimpses are. I believe, as a matter of faith, that God is compassionate, loving, kind, a creator, and so much more. But none of us should ever attempt to define God or put God in a box with any kind of authority.
One day, hopefully, we’ll see God face to face and be saturated with the knowledge of who God is; I imagine being flooded with the love of God to the point that I cannot contain it. That is my hope and prayer – and that is the best I can do.