“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all … Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (verses 33-34, 37)
How readily do we keep our word? How easily do we let ourselves off the hook from promises we’ve made or commitments we’ve spoken?
In a time when misinformation or disinformation deliberately distorts social media, when political leaders make promises they have no intention of fulfilling, when the label “fake news” gets slapped on any report that is disagreeable to the one brandishing the label, has truth itself been downsized?
How does all of this affect our own truthfulness, or lack of it? Does truth shine less brightly? Have we, too, grown lax?
In Jesus’ day, everyone subscribed to a veneer of truthfulness. Indeed, oaths were often invoked to build the confidence of those listening, implying that you really meant what you were saying – that you would really hold to the promise you were making. Taking an oath seemed to raise the stakes. It sounded good. Yet, you could still let yourself off the hook. There were many ways to fudge.
Indeed, the rabbis had come up with complex, convoluted rules when it came to oath-taking. If you swore by the name of the Lord, your oath was considered binding. But if you intentionally swore by something less lofty, you could weasel your way out. Swearing by heaven or earth sounded good, but neither was weighty enough to oblige you to keep your word. If you swore “by” Jerusalem, you could be let off the hook. But if you swore “toward” Jerusalem, that was considered unbreakable. Who knew? So many of these “rules of play” were like crossing your fingers behind your back.
All of this provides the background to Jesus’ statement, “Do not take an oath at all.” The issue has to do with truthfulness and faithfulness to one’s word. The oath-taking of that day was not so much a means of ensuring faithfulness, but rather of providing escape-hatches from commitment. Jesus says, Don’t do it. Speak truth. Be faithful. Keep your word. Simply say “Yes” or “No” and mean it. Then do it. Anything else is simply deceptive. It doesn’t uphold truth but comes instead from the evil one, the father of lies. Don’t go there.
The Apostle Paul, speaking later to the Corinthians, confirms that his own promises are faithful and true. In so doing, he affirms the greater faithfulness of the Lord himself. This is what he says:
“But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not ‘Yes” and ‘No.’ For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you … was not ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ but in him it has always been ‘Yes.’ For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:18-20)
Jesus is “the Truth,” the one who is called “Faithful and True.” Be like him. That’s the calling he places on our lives – to put aside falsehood, and any degree of finger-crossing, and simply speak truth.
In the midst of a world that is so caught up in fudging, this may be one of the signs of Christlikeness that shines the brightest.
Lord Jesus, I confess that speaking words that are faithful and true is so much harder than it looks. It is all too easy to speak lightly of commitment and then fail to follow through. Strengthen me by your Spirit in my inner being to live your truth and to walk in your faithfulness. Guard my tongue from speaking glibly – train me to let my ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and my ‘no’ be ‘no.’ For your glory. Amen.
Reflect: Have you spoken words of promise or commitment that you have been slow to fulfill, or have simply set aside? Speak with the Lord about them. Ask for his direction in making good.
Photo by Michèle Eckert on Unsplash