But I say to you: oaths

sermon-on-the-mountA Teaching About Oaths. 33 “Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.’34 But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;35 nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.36 Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.37 Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.

One commentator labeled this section “Love Is Unconditionally Truthful;” perhaps that is what Jesus demands of his disciples: a truthfulness that makes oaths unnecessary. That being said, there is no explicit precedent in Judaism for the absolute prohibition of oaths. What Jesus cites is not an exact quotation of any Old Testament text (but see Exodus 20:7; Dt 5:11; Lev 19:12). In general, the purpose of an oath was to guarantee truthfulness by one’s calling on God as witness

Jesus formulates an antithesis that summarizes and paraphrases the Old Testament’s teaching about oaths (Lev 19:12; Ps 50:14), then rules it out by his command that his followers take no oaths at all. Matthew 5:34b-36 is explicitly anti-casuistic (cf. 23:16-21), rejecting oaths that use substitutes for the name of God and those that avoid it altogether. Jesus abolished the distinction between words that must be true and those that must not, between words one is compelled to stand behind and those one must not, and calls for all speech to be truthful. As with divorce, Jesus’ original prohibition was absolute, rejecting not only false or unnecessary oaths, but any effort to bolster our statement’s claim to truth beyond the bare statement of it. It is a demand for the truthfulness of all our words.

Instructed by the models in the preceding antitheses, Jesus’ disciples are called to make their own situational applications as they attempt to be guided by his call to speak the truth. There may, indeed, be situations when utter candor violates the greatest command of love to God and neighbor.  Someone once said the all our words need to be true, necessary and helpful. Sometimes it is best not to speak at all.  Jesus disciples have to take on the theological responsibility to determine if a lie can ever be told in the service of love and truth.  What is clear is that Jesus refuses to give legalistic sanction or casuistic examples, casting the disciples on their own theological responsibility.


Notes

Matthew 5:33 oaths: The purpose of an oath was to guarantee truthfulness by one’s calling on God as witness. Judaism seems to have created and elaborated the system of oaths and vows developed in the Old Testament to guarantee (some) words as especially true. The Mishnah has an entire tractate on oaths (Shebuoth) and another on vows (Nedarim). In both the Gentile and the Jewish worlds, an oath invoked the deity to guarantee the truth of what was said, or to punish the one taking the oath if what was affirmed was not true. Oaths involve communication between two parties, with the name of God (or a valid substitute) invoked as guarantor. Vows were made directly to God. What was confirmed by an oath had to be true; what was vowed had to be done. This is somewhat analogous to the legal distinction made in United States courts between statements made under oath and other statements that are not. To testify falsely under oath is a crime. Other false statements may be considered morally wrong, but the oath system is considered necessary in order to guarantee the truth of at least some statements, and to tell when guilt has been incurred by falsehood and when not.

Matthew 5:34-36 by heaven…by earth … by Jerusalem … by your head: The use of these surrogate oath formularies (kinnuyim) avoid the divine name is in fact equivalent to swearing by it, for all the things sworn by are related to God.

Matthew 5:37 Let your `Yes’ mean `Yes,’ and your `No’ mean `No’: literally, “let your speech be ‘Yes, yes,’ ‘No, no.’ “ Some have understood this as a milder form of oath, permitted by Jesus. In view of Matthew 5:34, “Do not swear at all,” that is unlikely. from the evil one: i.e., from the devil. Oath-taking presupposes a sinful weakness of the human race, namely, the tendency to lie. Jesus demands of his disciples a truthfulness that makes oaths unnecessary.

Sources

  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 177-217
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