“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.” –Matthew 5:33-37
I’ve always kind of skipped over this passage. Nobody truly makes oaths or vows or swears allegiance in any kind of official manner these days like you see in epic, medieval films where the hero makes some kind of an oath and follows through at any cost. Or the meaning has been subconsciously reduced to resolve to not idly say “I swear to God” or anything of that sort. It seemed a bit anachronistic and totally unrelevant for Jesus to command us not to make oaths at all. Which is why I’ve always skipped over it. As far as I knew, I wasn’t in the habit of making oaths or vows of any kind, so I could safely check that commandment off of my personal to-do list.
I re-read through The Cost of Discipleship recently and Dietrich Bonhoeffer helped illuminate this passage for me (Thanks, Diet;). He considered what the original practice of oaths entailed. What was the original purpose of making an oath?
Essentially, Dietrich proposes that an oath was a remedy for untruthfulness. The practice in ancient times was to bind a man to his word, and that any oath was a binding contract, in which he would rather allow death to come first than to break his word.
Now Jesus completely overrides and overturns this–as He often does–and says we should not make any oaths at all, to let our “Yes” be “Yes” and our “No” be “No.” Meaning, that our words should always be a reflection of truth, never idle, never presumptuous and always in tune with reality of God’s will. Such a life would render oaths completely useless, because we would never need to make an oath to qualify what we’re saying. Our words would be always true, always transparent all the time, and no need to hide anything or qualify our words and actions with any sort of “vow” or “oath” or “I mean it this time.”
This particularly struck me because of the idleness of words in our culture. It’s almost a sickness. We are so prone to sarcasm, irony and hyperbole. We constantly say the opposite of what we mean or habitually exaggerate things out of proportion. Of course when used correctly, irony and hyperbole can illuminate a deeper truth (Jesus used both quite proficiently). I’m not suggesting we rid ourselves of these devices. But to so casually and chronically reduce our speech to sarcastic retorts and quippy banter HAS to negatively affect us spiritually in some ways.
And it does.
We also often make promises we can’t keep, often because this remnant of “keeping our word” has gotten lost. We are masters at escaping commitment, procrastinating things we’ve committed ourselves to do, checking “will attend” on an RSVP and not showing up, saying yes when we want to say no, saying “yeah, let’s hang out sometime” and not ever making an effort.
And I am the first to admit that I am guilty of all of these things. And it frustrates because I know that while this may seem trite and unimportant, it is in fact a reflection of deeper things at work, a reflection of my own spiritual condition and a noncommittal attitude that so pervades our culture. This is a mindset we must wrestle with. And not only wrestle with—but to live so radically different that a distinction is visible and completely unavoidable—a city on a hill.
At Status this past year, we’ve been focusing on what Jesus teaches about discipleship, how the disciples learned to follow and imitate Christ and the implications of that for our lives as professed followers of Jesus. I suppose this series has intersected a lot with what I’ve been reading lately and the changes that I want to allow the Spirit to impose on my life, to perpetually surrender compartments in my life that are inconsistent with the rhythms of who God is.
But even considering this one passage—on making oaths—has unveiled to me how little I know of truly following Christ. It has also flung open the doors for me to explore what it would really mean for me to live a life of truthfulness and transparency, so much so that making an oath or promise would no longer be necessary.
Oh, how far I have to go.