Just yesterday I electronically signed an oath (authored by Best Buy’s team of hundreds of lawyers) that I would: 1) install two new elements in the pressure cooker I purchased from them two years ago if they sent me replacements for the faulty parts, and 2) properly dispose of the faulty elements. Our consumer culture is awash in a world of impersonal, ambiguous, sometimes ridiculous oaths and promises.
Is Jesus concerned about inadequate, self-serving or deceitful promises? Apparently so.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not take oaths at all—not by heaven because it is the throne of God, not by earth because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem because it is the city of the great King. Do not take an oath by your head because you are not able to make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one. Matthew 5:33-37 NET
Religious leaders before and during Jesus’ time had developed a hierarchy of verbal oaths (supposedly reflecting Scripture) used in a variety of everyday transactions. In the above verses, Jesus comments on their order of reliability: God, heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and one’s own head. Oaths in the name of God were the only ones religious leaders considered truly binding. This hierarchy was being used to cleverly modify promises.
Jesus pointed out that all of the elements in that hierarchy belong to God. Therefore, promises/contracts should have the underlying simplicity of yes or no. Elaborate agreements are “from the evil one” if their purpose is to formulate a loophole.
Over the centuries, readers of Matthew 5:33-37 have sometimes thought Jesus meant for his followers to avoid all oaths. Other scriptures make this idea seem implausible. For example: Jesus makes an oath regarding his claim to be Messiah in Matthew 26:62-66; God makes oaths by himself in Genesis 22:16 and Isaiah 45:23; Paul swears an oath in I Thessalonians 5:27; Hebrews 6:13 elaborates on God’s oath to Abraham and further explains that the making of oaths is customary — at least at the time the letter to the Hebrews was written.
So, how else can we anchor our understanding of Matthew 5:33-37? Biblical commentators have most often linked Jesus’ words here with the third and seventh commandments. What is your assessment of how these commandments apply to taking oaths?
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold guiltless anyone who takes his name in vain. Deuteronomy 20:7 NET
“You shall not steal. Deuteronomy 20:15 NET
As you make your way through the Lord’s Prayer again today, consider how to simplify your words before promising to serve God and others.
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