“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Matthew 5:33-37 (NRSV)
When I was sworn into the military, you had the option of saying, “I solemnly swear” or “I solemnly affirm.” This passage is pretty much why.
As always, we need to remind ourselves of the role this sermon plays in Jesus’ ministry and in the lives of his audience. If we take the sermon as just a patchwork of Jesus’ thoughts on various topics, we may miss some important things that help us understand the teachings as well as some of the richness.
So, when we come to this segment, we want to try to understand it as organically connected to the other material and not just Jesus going, “And another thing that really grinds my gears – oaths!” We want to understand this in light of Jesus forming a new community – a new Israel – who is defined by faithfulness (which is supposed to look a lot like the original mission of Israel) to YHWH as a holy people who will invariably draw the persecution both of the Empires of this world and those who benefit from them. He is also announcing to them the immanence of their forgiveness, restoration, deliverance, and exaltation (or their predestination, calling, justification, and glorification, if you prefer).
We have looked at how Jesus’ sermon brings them good news and hope with what God is doing at that point in history as well as a calling to be faithful Israel and not become like the powers around them. It is in this vein that we get to this teaching about oaths.
This is perhaps the clearest indicator in the Sermon that we can’t just take Jesus’ teachings here and drop them on all places at all times. Not only does God swear oaths, He also requires them. There are laws around them, and a reasonable amount of Old Testament law depends on oaths and their validity (more on this in a moment). One component of an oath was invoking either God Himself as a witness or something else holy and/or enduring like the king, heaven and earth, etc. The other component was either directly stating or implying a curse if you swore falsely. We still have a sense of this in modern day oaths, and not just legal ones. Even children will swear “on their mother’s grave” or “cross their heart and hope to die.”
In virtually every culture at all times, there is some mechanism where you put collateral up for your credibility, and this implies a stronger credibility. If someone says, “Bill robbed the gas station, and if that’s not true, I will poke my eyes out with hot irons,” that’s a lot stronger and has more credence than, “Bill robbed the gas station, as far as I can tell” or “I’m pretty sure Bill robbed the gas station, but you know, I’ve been wrong before!”
But what is it about the role that oaths played in the experience of first century Israel that would warrant Jesus telling his followers to avoid them, even going so far as to say they come from the evil one?
Some commentators have pointed out that, in the system of Midrashaic oaths that sprung up over time, there were ways for people to swear that left them an “out.” They would swear, but not by God, and they would create sort of a non-religious oath that was acceptable to break. One could only imagine how you could screw someone over by swearing an oath that you could “legally” get out of if it proved to be inconvenient. Perhaps this sort of practice is what Jesus is speaking against.
That may be, and if that were an abusive practice of certain Jews against other Jews who could do nothing about it, that would certainly fit the overall theme of the Sermon.
What strikes me, though, is how big a role oaths played in the legal system of the time as well as the community’s esteem of the person making the oath.
In the absence of video cameras and DNA evidence, verbal testimony was important. In fact, it was pretty much all there was. If one person took another person to court, it was very often just one person’s word against another. And most of the cases did not end with someone going, “Well, you say one thing, he says another. There’s no way to know for sure, and innocent until proven guilty, so I guess we’ll let this one go.” That would have been virtually all cases.
Instead of throwing out 99% of disputes, a person’s witness under oath in Jewish law was more or less the deciding factor.
But we know, and so did they, that people tend to lie for their own benefit. Two things would be in place to offset this.
One would be the curse. As part of your oath, you specified something terrible that would happen to you if it turned out you were giving false witness. Granted, when you look at some of these oaths, the “something terrible” sometimes ran along lines of “may God strike me with lightning,” but at least it was there to make you think twice.
The other offsetting factor was whether or not the community held you to be reputable. It is actually part of Midrashic oath laws that the burden of proof in a case can be shifted depending on whether or not one of the parties is “known to be a suspected liar.” You don’t even have to be an actual liar. People just have to think that you probably would be. I’m going to let that sink in for a moment.
Let’s say that I am a reputable, upstanding, respected man in the community, and you are my servant. Let’s say that my silver goes missing, and I accuse you in a court of law. The odds are good that you are totally screwed. If the community considers me to be the truthful one, and you the liar, then you have to prove you did not steal the silver. I have to prove nothing. Why should I? I am an upstanding citizen. You are a servant.
And if you have an accusation of criminal activity in your past, we might as well not even have a trial.
In other words, people who do not have a good reputation in the community (deserved or undeserved) are quite literally at the legal mercy of those who do.
Jesus has already warned his followers to settle their disputes among themselves and not wield the power of the court against one another. I believe that this teaching is related.
On the one hand, oaths under this system can be used as a tool for oppression. The Law tries to keep this from happening, but as Paul will point out to us, the Law tries a lot of things that human evil manages to circumvent and even use as a facilitator for evil purposes. This certainly isn’t the first place in the Sermon where Jesus has pointed out that someone can observe the Law’s letter and still be doing evil.
On the other hand, taking an oath even of your own innocence is a huge risk, because if you do, and you are found out to be guilty (rightly or wrongly), then you’re done. The best you can hope for is a ruling that, as we see in certain Midrashim, the plaintiff should have known better than to associate with you, so it’s their own fault. If you take an oath falsely, or even if you take an oath truly and are convicted of falsehood, you now have a huge Welcome sign for anyone of solid reputation (like, say, Sanhedrin) who wants to fleece you and use the courts to do it.
It has probably been a while since you faced potential fleecing in court by the Sanhedrin. Nevertheless, it seems good and wise that we should carefully consider our agreements and commitments so that we would be known as people of our word – so that we can focus on being faithful to a few commitments rather than being halfhearted (or no-hearted) about many. Limited faithfulness is better than widespread unfaithfulness. We want to be trustworthy for our brothers and sisters and – whether we are persecuted or not – we want all charges to be false.
But also, as we think about the role of a faithful Jesus community that testifies to a new creation, it seems clear that we need to be careful about how we treat our brothers and sisters, how we handle our disputes, what we hold against them, and how we can seek their good above our own. The community the Spirit builds is a community that looks after one another and is actually famous for it. Whenever you put two or more people together – someone is going to wrong someone else. How we respond as a community and as an individual to those times says a lot about our profession of faith.
- What are some ways we can do evil in the name of being good? What are some things that might not overtly be sin that can become sin in the way that we use them?
- If a brother or sister wrongs you, what should the ultimate goal be in that situation? Justice? Restoration? Are those two things incompatible?