Matthew 5:33-37 (NIV) “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.”
By these words, just as He as with the other commandments, Jesus is not negating the old. It is still never okay for God’s people to murder, or to commit adultery, or to divorce without just cause. And if one of God’s people makes an oath in His name, that person must be particularly conscientious about keeping that oath, since He has called upon God Himself as a witness to it.
But Jesus went a step further in this issue of integrity. Many of the teachers and rabbis of Jesus’ day had developed lengthy guidelines on which oaths were binding, and which oaths simply SOUNDED binding, but really weren’t. They had worked out a system where they could swear to do something with an impressive-sounding oath, “I swear by the temple…” but in the fine print, the experts in the law had determined that they weren’t bound by that specific oath. (Cf. Matthew 23:16-22.)
This issue was never about mere words in God’s sight, but about integrity, the opposite of duplicity and hypocrisy. Integrity means that you are what you appear to be, and that your words mean exactly what they appear to mean, with no fine print. In God’s kingdom, a person can be trusted in everything that they say, without having to invoke an oath in order to be believe. In God’s kingdom, everyone who makes a promise, whether accompanied by an oath or not, will do all in their power to keep that promise, and will make up for it as soon as possible if keeping their promise somehow becomes impossible, or if what they legitimately believed to be true turns out not to be.
The last phrase, “anything beyond this comes from the evil one,” has caused some people to believe that everything from swearing to tell the truth in court to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is sinful. But that misses the point. Paul himself, on several occasions in his letters, accompanied his testimony that could not be confirmed by another person with an oath invoking God’s name. (For an example, see Galatians 1:18-20.) What Jesus was condemning here is the duplicity that invokes an oath to mask one’s true intentions, as many of the Pharisees and teachers of the law were doing. If your intentions were to deceive, so that a simple yes or no is not possible, but had to mask your answer with a pious sounding oath, then you are lying, and using God to cover the lie. That is from the evil one.
Father, help us all to live lives of such integrity that our testimony and our promises need no oath to be believed or fulfilled. Help our every yes to be a solid yes, and our every no to be a solid no, with absolutely no gray areas, no taint of deception, no matter how small. Amen.