“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.Matthew 5:33-37 NIV
In this section Jesus is dealing with oaths. Not with vulgar language. But with making a solemn promise, affirming that what you are saying is true. As a kid, ‘cross my heart and hope to die’, was the oath of choice to express that we really meant what we were saying. As an adult it may take the form of ‘I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God’.
The Old Testament and Oaths
The expression that Jesus refers to here seems to come from a couple of places in the Old Testament. In Numbers 30:2 we find, “When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” And Deuteronomy 23:21 says, “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin.“
Neither of these passages tell us that we should make vows, or oaths. But when we do we need to be careful to follow through. This is especially true when the vow is make to God. Or when we invoke his name when we make the oath. But even if we do not, we are expected to follow through.
The Art of Oath Making
I understand that the Jews of Jesus’ day were frequent oath makers. And that their oaths were often very elaborate. But these elaborate oaths were often quite deceiving. In Matthew 23:16-22 Jesus returns to this topic of oaths. And in this passage we find something more about this habit of deceptive oath making.
“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.Matthew 23:16-22 NIV
When I was a kid making promises to other kids, crossing my fingers behind my back negated anything I might actually be saying. And that is just what Jesus accuses the Pharisees of doing here. If your oath did not include some key phrases, it was not binding. You could promise anything you wanted. And so long as you did not include the magic words, your promise meant nothing. I’m sure that was in Jesus mind as he talks to his disciples, and the crowd, in this teaching.
Just a Simple Yes and No Will Do
If I am known as a person of integrity, a person who always keeps his word, then elaborate oaths are unnecessary. It should be enough to let a simple ‘yes’ suffice to make a commitment. My yes, and no, should be sufficient. Anything more than that would be an indication that I may not be quite trustworthy.
This then raises the question about taking an oath when testifying in a courtroom. As followers of Jesus, what should we do in that, or a similar, situation. I think, when we really consider what is happening there, that it is not a problem. We are being asked if we will be truthful. And our response is a simple ‘yes’, or ‘I do’. And that, I believe, is fully in line with what Jesus has had to say here.
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