Do you mean it? Do you really mean it? We use many different methods to get across the simple idea that we mean what we say and that our promises will be met. It could be something simple like a handshake, something frivolous like a pinky swear, perhaps raising our voice or cussing in order to add weight to our words, or by swearing on something important or bigger than ourselves. Contracts and Covenants are simply a formal statement of an oath with the greater party being the rule of law. In one way or another all of these and many more have one purpose; to ensure that someone’s statements and promises are trustworthy, honorable, and true. And then we encounter Jesus’ teaching on the subject.
So far we’ve seen Jesus say something along the lines of “you’ve heard it said, but I say” three times. In the first, He addressed murder and anger. In the second adultery and lust. In the third marriage and divorce. In this fourth statement, Jesus addresses our oaths. “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. “Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” (Matthew 5:33–37, NASB95) The Jewish folks of that day had developed an elaborate understanding of oaths. They argued over what oaths counted and what oaths didn’t and what oaths had more weight. They even used words that sounded like oaths but weren’t – kind of like the old saw about crossing your fingers behind your back to negate a promise. For instance, in a series of woes aimed at the religious leaders Jesus said, “ Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ “You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold?” (Matthew 23:16–17, NASB95) You know you’re in trouble when something said to ensure truthfulness becomes a means of deception.
One question that we need to consider before we move on – If oaths are bad why then did God use them? The Book of Hebrews sums up God’s interaction with Abraham, “For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself… For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us.” (Hebrews 6:13–18, NASB95) It wasn’t because the one who said “let there be light” couldn’t or wouldn’t keep His promise. The covenantal oaths and ceremonies were for Abraham’s sake. God spoke in a language Abraham could put his faith, trust, and hope on.
The high bar which Jesus set in this possible impossibility is that our words are always truthful and can always be trusted. That our “yes” and our “no” is like gold in the bank, no falsehood, not deceit, no broken commitments, no shattered or forgotten promises. No escaping by saying “I didn’t mean it” or “I was only joking.” The “more” needed to reach that high bar is integrity. We can’t control our reputations, especially in this information-saturated and Facebook testifying time we live in. The only thing we really need to worry about is whether our yes is yes and our no is no. Do we talk and act with truthful integrity? Even when we need to retract a statement or ask to be released from a promise are we truthful in our reasoning or do we bend our words so that we look ok?
Considering the practical application of Jesus’ command, we may still need to provide assurances for our words. My spiritual ancestors applied Jesus’ teaching to the point of never swearing an oath. Even today there is religious accommodation for courtroom witnesses to provide a declaration of affirmation instead of swearing to tell the truth. Our words should be so truthful and sure that no additional amplification is necessary. However, just like the interaction between God and Abraham, it is often prudent to speak in a language that another can take to heart. So, while an oath may not be necessary for us, it may be helpful to someone else. Remember: Jesus followers are implored to wear the belt of truth. (You know what happens with your belt comes loose – your pants fall down, and you end up exposing more than you had hoped or planned for.)