The Bible is a mixture of history, literature and theology. It is the history of a people’s relationship with their God, told through a great variety of literary genres, and shaped by a variety of editorial points of view – which is what “theology” is really: a way of viewing and understanding one’s relationship with the God of the Bible and others. All others.
Another way of talking about “theology” might be to say that it is a people’s best shot in a given historical time and place to make sense of our relationship with the God of the burning bush, the God of creation, the God who says, I chose you not because you were so numerous, “It is because the Lord loved you and kept an oath that he swore to your ancestors that the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deut 7:8
As the Sermon on the Mount continues, we find Jesus speaking about “swearing oaths.” He is not talking about dirty words, but rather is interpreting the commandments of the God of the Passover and Exodus in the light of present circumstances – the people are once again enslaved to a new empire whose god and king is Caesar. In particular, going back to Deuteronomy chapter 5 and the command not to swear an oath in God’s name wrongfully or lightly.
Others in the Kubicek household will confirm that I cringe while watching HGTV, and the owners of a house see the makeover of their home for the first time and the first words out of their mouths are almost always, “Oh, my god!” Which, regrettably has been reduced to the letters “OMG” on social media and texts. This is what Moses is talking about in Deuteronomy, and this is what Jesus reiterates in the Sermon on the Mount – “You have heard it said, ‘Do not swear falsely in the Lord’s name,’ but I say, Do not swear at all!”
Jesus is practicing a form of interpretation of the Bible and its commandments sometimes called putting a hedge or a fence around the Torah, the commandments of God. The idea is that you propose a more stringent command that it meant to keep you as far away as possible from the original command which had to do with swearing oaths in the name of God.
Names were understood as power in the ancient world, and as such the practice can be seen to continue to this day. Think of how corporations and businesses pay huge sums of money to have their name affixed to a sports stadium or a skyscraper. Names stand for something and someone and convey authority. So it is that Moses inquires of the burning bush, “What is your name? Who shall I say sends me to negotiate with Pharaoh and my people?” Moses knows if he is to succeed in his assigned tasks he needs to back it up with a name. Poor Moses! The answer he gets is even more mysterious than a bush that burns and is not consumed: I Am Who I Am! Tell them I Am sent you!
This is where language fails us and we are left to the world of metaphor and even poetry to even begin to express what it is we know about our relationship with one who is beyond mere words, the one who defies being pinned down in a few words. Jesus understands what is at stake here – the misuse of God’s name to further one’s personal desires, beliefs, agenda and quest for power over others.
So sure, OMG seems harmless enough, but represents a cheapening of God’s name, God’s power, God’s will. Over against all the other so-called “swear words” we might use, and they are many, OMG may well represent our culture’s and society’s ultimate cheapening of God’s holy name, giving tacit approval of using God’s name for all of our favorite personal and political desires, beliefs, agendas and plays for power and authority.
Jesus knows what Moses knew, which is that there is one, and only one, commandment that is repeated twice. The tenth. Thou shalt not covet, and in case you did not hear me, thou shalt not covet. One might argue that this command against coveting lies at the heart of all the commandments of God – for it is our endless desire for more and more and more that leads to anger that becomes murder, lust that becomes adultery, disrespect that becomes divorce, and unfettered lust for power that becomes idolatry.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps the keenest theological mind of the 20th century, observes that the longest of the ten initial commandments is the third – the command to observe a Sabbath Day once a week. He goes on to suggest that Sabbath, taking time off from desiring, acquiring and consuming, is the antidote to our innate covetousness – which covetousness leads us into all sorts of temptation. And yet, we struggle to take even one day off, so tenured are we to an economic system driven by promises that unfettered covetousness will bring us true happiness.
When the Psalmist in Psalm 119 devotes the longest poem in the Bible to meditating on God’s Word and Commandments, he is on solid ground in proclaiming that this is the ultimate source of all happiness: “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!
Happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts!”
When we do meditate on God’s law we find just in the book of Deuteronomy the following: this way of “walking” entails canceling the debts of the poor (15:1-11), pushing government to guard against excessive wealth (17:14-20), limiting punishment to protect human dignity (19:1-7), offering hospitality to runaway slaves and refugees (23:15-16), paying employees fairly (24: 14-15), and leaving part of the harvest in the field for those who need it, those who are hungry (24:19-22).
OMG! Just look at what meditating on God’s law and walking in its way can lead to: doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.
More importantly, spending time examining the history, literature and theology of the Bible can lead us to making the world, God’s world, the world God holds in God’s hands, a better place, not just for me and my kin, but for all people, everywhere, in all times and all places. Amen.