33“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.’
34But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
One of the issues we bump into when studying the book of Matthew is the mountain of Pharisaic Laws that were firmly in place at the time Jesus did His earthly ministry. A few of these laws had to do with oath taking, and once again, Jesus comes along to reframe everyone’s thinking about the subject.
For the Jew at the time, there was actually a hierarchy of oaths one could take. You could swear by all kinds of things that led up to God Himself. You could swear by Heaven, the earth, Jerusalem, the Temple, the Altar . . . all leading closer and closer to God. The proximity of the thing you swore by to God impacted the force of your oath. So, if you swore by something outside of the Temple, your oath was somewhat suspect. But if you swore by God Himself, then you should most certainly be believed. While we don’t have such a system inside of our culture, you often hear people say, “I swear to God . . .” That phrase doesn’t carry much weight with us because who knows if the person speaking those words even believes in God! All of it from the ancient practices to our flippant use of God’s name still carries the problem. We take oaths lightly and don’t expect to be held to their truthfulness. We don’t really know how to be honest about our emotions, our intentions, or our desires 100% of the time. Truth isn’t always convenient.
Jesus calls all of it into question. How can you possibly swear by anything at all? You haven’t got the power to back up a single word. We can’t even change the color of our own hair (without chemical help). We are completely powerless to enforce anything. So, we’d best be honest with our words and sincere about our promises. To do that, Jesus provides the answer. When you say “yes” – mean it. When you say “no” – mean it. (And it is alright to say “no” you know.) This all seems like a simple thing – but it’s not. Take the challenge to live with verse 37 as you walk through your daily life. “Let what you say be simply, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” Experience the freedom that comes with not having to explain yourself, excuse yourself, or flat out lie about something. Our lives would be revolutionized!
“The disciples of Jesus can be such men and women, and in saying what they mean and only what they mean, they will salt the earth.”
Gibbs, J. A. ©2006 Matthew 1:1–11:1 (p. 299). Saint Louis, MO: CPH.