Oaths, Swearing and Truthfulness, Matt 5:33-37
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In this text Jesus says that healthy community, good communication in life, is not about making vows and keeping sworn oaths, as in Num 30:2, Deut 23:21-23, but simply telling the truth! Jews swore by all sorts of things other than God in the belief that, if they didn’t keep their word, they were then not using God’s name in vain (i.e. breaking the 2nd Commandment).
The practice of swearing, making vows, taking an oath, was to persuade with power communication, to ‘vouch’ for your promise, to ‘prove’ the truth of what you said, even to get your own way! It amounted to manipulation and control in conversation. So Jesus, in this text, addresses speech and truth-telling, and the (mis)use of God’s name.
Depending on your culture, you may say, “I swear on my mother’s grave that…”, to make others believe you’re telling the truth. In the Judaeo-Christian judicial system people have to put their hand on the Bible and swear under oath, “I will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God!” The idea is to call on a higher authority, represented in a sacred symbol, which binds the conscience to tell the truth and/or to fulfil a promise. And thus to be held accountable – punished or vindicated – by that higher authority, i.e. God (see 1Kgs 8:31-32).
The rabbis in Jesus’ day debated which oaths were binding or not, as seen in the hierarchical list that Jesus referred to in Matt 5:34-36, and also Matt 23:16-22. His central point is that whatever you swear by is ultimately God’s, whether it be heaven, earth, Jerusalem, the Temple, the altar, or your head (even the hairs of one’s head are under God’s sway and ownership!) Swearing by any of these ‘things’ is still swearing by God – though indirectly! So Jesus’ answer to this, his way of being authentically human as God’s image, is simply not to swear at all and keep your word and tell the truth.
Be truth-full. Don’t lie. Not even white lies! Never make promises you can’t keep. If you make a promise, keep it! Don’t try to impress, exaggerate, manipulate or control others by your words, pressurising them to believe what you’re saying, by resorting to swearing, making vowing, invoking God as your authority.
For example, some Christians use “God told me…” when it’s evidently not the case for various (discerning) reasons. People who live the life God intended, those in his new covenant rule and reign (Kingdom), are as good as their word. They mean what they say and say what they mean. Their ‘yes’ is ‘yes’, their ‘no’ is ‘no’; “anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matt 5:37).
Strong words from Jesus! The devil was a liar from the beginning, the father of lies, the ultimate manipulator and deceiver. Don’t live out his evil nature (John 8:44), a hypocrite who acts out one thing while being another behind the mask! Jesus’ way of being human is to be a “WYSIWYG” person: what-you-see-is-what-you-get! Being real. Be honest. No pretence, no games-play, no pressurising others, no getting your own way.
In short, Jesus intensifies the letter of the law (Deut 23:22-23, Eccl 5:5) by upholding the spirit – the original intention and direction – of the law, especially the 2nd commandment not to take God’s name in vain (Ex 20:7).
This is very relevant and applicable to our world of politics, power-language, spin-doctors, motivational-talk, manipulation and control – a world of misinformation, half-truths, fake-news and deceit. The Oxford Dictionary is updated annually. They choose one new word that has come into usage that best captures the spirit of the year. In 2016 they chose ‘post-truth’.
We live in an ‘after-truth’ world where blatant lies are shamelessly presented as the truth, modelled by political, civic, business, national and global leaders. People swear in all sorts of ways to make their point and get their way, often using foul expletives to intimidate others. We no longer easily believe or trust people. We listen with a skeptical ear and cynical heart. This is NOT the life, nor community, God intended – it “comes from the evil one”.
Christ-followers are salt and light: we stick to our word, fulfil our promises, are consistently truthful. We don’t (have to) resort to manipulative words, or abusive swearing, or use God’s name in vain to impress others, or to get our way.