I like to picture myself sitting on the side of that hill where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount that Matthew recorded in Matthew 5-7 and watching the crowd as they heard Jesus stunning message. Over and over again he reminded them of what they had heard from religious teachers and likely from their parents all their lives and then he turned to say, it wasn’t quite right that there was always more to it than they had learned. In Verses 33-37 of chapter 5 he used this illustration. “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath 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. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No;’ anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
In my imagination I see the people looking at each other and wondering, “is he really saying we aren’t supposed to swear at all?” His message went totally against the grain of what they had thought and heard all their lives. By the way, it is still running against the grain. They had learned to swear by different things to demonstrate the strength of the oath. If one swore by something fairly minor it meant their feeling was that this wasn’t a very important thing anyway and that keeping one’s promise didn’t really matter all that much. If, for example, you call a plumber to come to your house because you have a leak in the bathroom or a drain stopped up and they tell you that they promise to be there tomorrow at 9:30 to work on it, if they really weren’t all that concerned whether they were there or not or if they were on time they would swear by something minor and unimportant. But if their commitment was real they might swear by the temple or by some other spiritual entity. When I was in the real estate business we always believed that the size of the earnest money a buyer put down indicated how serious they were about making the purchase. If they kept it very small it usually meant they wouldn’t be real concerned if they had to walk away and lose the money. But if they put up a large amount as earnest money we knew they meant business and intended to make the purchase.
What kinds of things would make your promise mean more to you than simply your word being true and honest? If you swore to something on your mother’s grave would it mean you were really intending to do a thing as promised? What about if you make the commitment with a statement that you stake your life on this matter? There is a lengthy discussion in the Book of Ecclesiastes about the need to fulfill the vows we make, especially a vow made to God. Obviously many of the Jews believed that keeping such a vow was a big thing since the Book of Judges tells the story of Jephthah where he made a vow that if God would bring victory to Israel under his lead that he would offer the first thing that came out of his house on his return from battle as an offering to God. I have no idea what he thought would be the first thing to come from his house but when he returned with joy and celebration his only daughter came out with tambourines celebrating the victory her father and the people had. It ripped his heart out that he had made such a vow, but now felt obligated to carry out his promise to God.
Jesus undercut the whole way of thinking and declared that we shouldn’t be swearing at all but should be able to simply say, “yes” or “no” and be completely bound to fulfill our promise. Think about it, if I can’t be trusted to do what I say I will do when I say I will do it, what difference would it make if I made an oath and swore on the Bible. Liars lie! That is just what they do. All the oaths in the world won’t make a dishonest person trustworthy.
But, Leon, does this mean that it is wrong to swear in court or make strong commitments where we have to sign with a notary to document our words? No, this isn’t talking about such matters. It is talking about regular, every day life. My word on a matter should be all it takes to have people trust what I say I will do. When I have someone to call, text or send a message asking that I pray for them or someone in their family, I always say that I will indeed be praying for them. I try hard to make it a habit now that I immediately stop and pray for the one that I have promised to pray for, because I’ve had too many times that I made that promise only to think about it a few days later or when I run upon the person and suddenly remember that I said I would be praying for them and it had cleanly gone out of my mind and I hadn’t thought about it since making the promise. I didn’t mean to lie to them. But I failed to do what I promised to do.
By the way, the very fact Jesus said either say “yes” or “no” indicates there are times in life when I need to say “NO” and stand by it. It is easy to say “Yes” to everything that people my ask of us only to realize that we have over-committed ourselves and have no ability to do all we promised to do. Jesus point is simple. Your word should be so trustworthy that if you say you will do a thing then everyone should be able to trust that we will do exactly what we said we would do.
Imagine the difference it would make in the world of business or politics or even in church if we strictly followed Jesus words and whatever we said, we did without delay? What a massive and positive change it would be!