by Lois Tverberg
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths 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. – Matt 5:33-37
Many are confused by Jesus’ saying about taking oaths from Matthew. In the Old Testament, God commanded the people to take their oaths in his name, not in the name of other gods (Dt. 6:13), and that they should not swear falsely in God’s name (Lev. 19:12). But in Matthew 5, Jesus commands people to not take oaths at all. Later, James quotes him almost verbatim:
But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment. James 5:12
Interestingly, other Jewish teachers are recorded as saying the same thing. Around 200 AD, the Babylonian Talmud records Rabbi Yossi ben Judah as saying: “Let your “yes” be yes, let your “no” be no. (Bava Metziah 49a). Philo, a Jewish philosopher of the first century also said, “The bare word of a virtuous man should be like an oath, steadfast, inviolable, and true. Should necessity absolutely require an oath, let a man swear by his father and mother . . . instead of by the name of the highest and first Essence.” (1)
What was the rationale for avoiding oaths all together? In Jesus’ time, the practice of taking oaths became more and more common; eventually it reached a point where a person’s promises were not believed if he had not done so. In ancient times, God himself was invoked as the witness who would guarantee to punish the oath-taker. But people started to search for other ways to guarantee their words so that God would not be dishonored if what they said did not come true. Swearing by the Temple, the altar, or by heaven was common, and Philo suggests swearing by one’s parents. But still people didn’t feel that their words were binding unless they included some oath.
Jesus pinpoints the necessity of an oath as an issue of integrity. If you have a tendency to break promises and don’t want to profane God’s name, the solution isn’t to swear by something else. Rather, it is to change your attitude so that you become a person who always lives out what you say.
(1) As quoted in “Oath,” Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk and Wagnalls, 1905-1906), in public domain at www.jewishencyclopedia.com.