Kingdom Living: Let Your Word Be Your Bond
(Eds. Note: Due to Benny’s desire to do a Mother’s Day message, we are posting the next message in our series on the Sermon on the Mount here; next week will pick back with Matthew 5:38-48 and will focus on retaliaition and loving our enemies).
The taking of oaths and vows was part of life in Jesus day. These two kinds of promises were distinct. An oath was concerned with a person’s future actions and a vow was related to objects and their use. Typically, the effect was one and the same. Verse 33, i.e. “again you have heard it said to those of old, ‘you shall not swear falsely…’” is not a direct quote from the Old Testament but an inference from passages like Exodus 20:7 and Leviticus 19:12. But Jesus seems to be dismissing this concept of oaths and vows and the distinctions between the two with “Do not swear at all”.
Some (for instance some Quakers) have interpreted this as a command to not take an oath in a courtroom or take an oath of allegiance. But I don’t think this is his intent. After all, Jesus himself responds to the demands of the high priests that He speak under oath at His trial. (Mt. 26:63-64) In the Old Testament, God Himself swears that He won’t send another flood, will send a Redeemer, will raise His son from the dead etc. Paul certainly did not take this as a forbidding of swearing by God’s name. Specifically, on a number of occasions, Paul calls on God as his witness. (Romans 1:9; II Cor. 1:23 and others)
The issue Jesus is raising is broader than whether we can take an oath in court. The Jews had built up an entire legalistic system concerning oaths. They had constructed a detailed consideration of when oaths were binding or not. They would swear by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, their own head evidently, for the purpose of not using God’s name and thus making vows non-binding; they would metaphorically cross their fingers behind their back. D. A. Carson cites one case where, “…one Rabbi says that if you swear by Jerusalem, you are not bound by your vow; but if you swear toward Jerusalem you are bound by your vow.” The whole system deteriorates into rules that allow you to get away with lying and deception. The oaths were no longer fostering truth but weakening it and providing justification for lying.
Jesus says two things about this. First, it is utter hypocrisy. Heaven is God’s throne, earth is His footstool, Jerusalem is His city, He numbers the hairs on our heads, so don’t think any word can be spoken, or promise be made that is not done in the presence of God. Second, it is systemic dishonesty. What presents itself as application of good theology is in reality rank untruth. It is to give the appearance of serious commitment, i.e. my word is my bond, but is really a lack of integrity and evidence of duplicity. Jesus will have none of it in the kingdom He is introducing in this Sermon.
How, then, should the Christian live? Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no. The Christian need not call God as his witness because God is present as he speaks. I am very uncomfortable as I write these words. Jesus seems to be saying that anything beyond straightforward honesty in our speech comes “from the evil one”. This level of truthfulness left a big impression on the early church evidenced by the fact that the earliest letter, the epistle of James, highlights this same point. (James 5:12) It makes me uncomfortable because if I am to follow the one who is “the Truth” then my communication must reflect my commitment to this level of honesty. How many times have I told a story with a slant that puts me in a more favorable light than the straight facts would call for? How many times have I said I would do things and then not followed through because it was inconvenient, or I “forgot”? How many times have I sinned, hidden it, and then acted as if nothing was wrong? If these questions are not also in your heart, then the wrong guy is writing this post.
Does our yes really mean yes? Do we “modify” the truth or disguise it in some way? Is my word reliable? Can people trust us and what we say? These are the practical, day-to-day issues that Jesus raises here. Jesus gives us the key to maintaining integrity in our speech. We are to recognize we are always in the presence of God, he sees us and hears us and every promise we make. We live our lives in full view of God. Excuse me while I stop at this point, I have a time of confession and repentance awaiting me.