|By Walt Disney (Original Trailer (1940)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear 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.
Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."
The point of this passage is as plain as the last line in it. God wants honesty. You don't have to look through too many lists in the Bible of sins, things God hates, and categories of people that will not inherit the kingdom of heaven before you realize that God really, really doesn't care for deception. However, just like the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lifts the ideal of truthfulness to a whole new level by contrasting it with God's calls for fulfilling oaths in the Old Testament, and that is worth taking note of.
It is worth pointing out,though, that God, himself, swore by an oath.
"People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. 17 Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. 18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged."
Based on that, I don't think it is a good practice to say that swearing an oath in a court of law, for example, would be sinful in and of itself--although I respect the decision of those who do. What Jesus is getting at is the heart and the culture that leans on deception so much that it becomes necessary to convince hearers that what you say is true.
I have heard this passage explained in light of the Jewish people's habit of "verbal finger-crossing." It was the idea that, if I swear by something like the temple, then I can still be righteous if I am not actually telling the truth, because I am not swearing by God. Jesus completely debunks any possibility of that because anything you swear by belongs to God and therefore still carries his weight. The truth, however, is that oaths are not even necessary inside the kingdom of heaven, because those living by kingdom principles desire so much to be like God, that to deceive someone else intentionally would contradict their very nature.
Others have pointed out that when we begin trying to convince someone else of their truthfulness by our promises or oaths, we have usually veered off course from simple communication into attempts at manipulation and coercion. The nature of God is to always give people choices and free will. When we push through simple yes or no answers trying to convince someone that what we say is true, don't we typically have an agenda that we are trying to push? Aren't we often needing them to accept our statements as truth in order to advance our own personal ambition, whatever it may be? To do so is self-serving and the culprit of selfishness can always be found at the scene of a crime against love.
And so, very simply, Jesus calls us to live lives of such honesty that we have no need of oaths...and we definitely have no need of "finger-crossing" oaths intended to deceive. But I don't think I'm telling you anything that you didn't already know and believe. So really...this week needs to just be a reminder and another call to evaluating our words and our hearts in light of Jesus' perfect ideal of "speaking the truth in love."
Am I honest with my spouse even when it might cause friction and I would rather avoid a fight? (honest...not blunt. There's a big difference and many an abusive, hateful, and self-serving person has hidden behind the mask of truth in order to continue their selfishly "blunt" ways.) Am I honest with my children when they ask about my past...or when I refer to my past...or to my current faith and my sometimes failures? Am I truthful with my children about my struggles that may affect them? Do I leave the door open for backing out when I commit to do something? ("I'll try to do that" is actually, "Deep down I know I'm not going to, but I'm too nice or chicken to say 'no'")
Sadly, I'm still working on many of these and probably will be until the day I die. But I will say this...by the grace of God and the working on the Spirit in my life...and the help of a good wife, I am at least a little more honest today than I was 7 years ago. That's not to my credit or goodness...I've always wanted to be good in that area and failed. It's to God's credit and goodness that He has the power to change liars like me. And I know and trust in my Savior who did live a perfectly honest life and imparted that righteousness to me. And for the rest of my life, I will continue to learn how to trust Him more and more that the best way to live is with a simple, "yes" meaning "yes" and "no" meaning "no."
A simple "yes" or "no" will do. :)