Matthew5v33to37: Oaths

(A) Introduction. Read Matthew5v33to37.

Jesus' teaching on oaths might seem rather mundane - a bit banal. We ignore anything Jesus said at our peril! A failure to take seriously Jesus' injunction to abide by our word has repercussions at a variety of levels: personal, community and national.

(B) The dangers of legalism.

Jesus claimed at the beginning of his great discourse that he hadn't come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. Here is a case in point. When he said, "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.'" Jesus was referring the law given by Moses:

When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said. Nu30v2.

If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. ..... Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth. Dt23v21to22.

Jesus had no intention of rescinding these laws. They are quite straightforward. Anyone who swears by God's name to keep a promise must be sure to do so. By swearing in God's name to keep a vow you are pledging to fulfil your vow as God does his. A failure to honour your pledge not only tarnishes your reputation but also the reputation of God in whose name the pledge was given. The oath breaker is guilty of taking the name of God in vain.

Jesus also told his disciples that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. See Mt5v20. The attitude of the Pharisees to oath breaking illustrates how far short they fell of the standard Jesus expects of his subjects.

(1) The Pharisees permitted what William Barclay calls frivolous swearing. This involved making an oath when none was necessary or proper. So a person might say, "I swear on the life of my child that the carp I caught weighted all of 40 lbs."

This kind of swearing is very common today. A cricketer might say after being given out caught behind the wicket, "I swear by all that's holy that I never touched the ball."

A child accused of copying his homework from his friend might say, "I swear, on my honour, I never looked at Jim's work."

This kind of frivolous swearing is really an admission that your bare word cannot be trusted. The person doing the swearing is really putting pressure on to get his protestations accepted as true.

(2) The Pharisees also allowed what Barclay calls evasive swearing. Oaths were divided into two classes: those absolutely binding and those that were not. The Pharisees could then satisfy their addiction to legalism by defining what oaths were binding and what were not. Jesus gives some examples of the arbitrary nature of their rulings in Mt23v16to22: "If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing but if one swears by the gold of the temple he is bound by his oath. ...... If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath."

A huge number of arbitrary rulings of this nature permit those in the know to swear with impunity. It also means that the vast majority of people who are in ignorance of all the rulings cannot tell whether an oath is binding or not and so are easily deceived.

Whenever rules and regulations abound there is a class of people who know how to exploit them to their advantage and another group who frequently fall foul of them.

Many Pharisees accepted that an oath involving God's name was binding but that other oaths were not. Jesus taught that this was a false distinction. He warns against swearing by heaven because that is God's throne, earth because that is his footstool, Jerusalem because that is his city or the head because that is under divine protection. In other words ever oath is made before God and as such should be kept.

(C) The best policy. "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No'."

(1) The importance of 'No being 'No'. As a former school teacher I know something about this. If a teacher establishes that a certain kind of behaviour is unacceptable and will be punished but then fails to keep his word, certain consequences are inevitable.

(a) The teacher will lose his authority. Children who get away with bad behaviour lose respect for the teacher and take little notice of what he says. He is no longer in control of his class.

This is also true of parents. I can remember travelling from Chessington North station to Waterloo with a group of children who were running wild. Their mothers - all of whom had run to seed - kept shouting threats by which to exert some control. The threats were never carried out and the children's behaviour went from bad to worse.

The apostle Paul knew how important it was to exert authority over the church at Corinth. He told the Christians there that if he had to make another visit to discipline them they would find it very painful.

(2) Pupils will also suffer when a teacher's 'No' is not 'No'. A teacher who applies sanctions arbitrarily - according to his mood - will be guilty of injustice. Pupils who get away with bad behaviour are treated unfairly. This gives rise to insecurity. Children like to know where they stand. The final result of the teacher losing authority is anarchy. This is something I witnessed in my professional life. In such circumstances no pupil can learn.

There are some 'jackass' advisers in the field of education who think sanctions is a dirty word. They argue that pupils shown respect will return it. Sadly this is not true of all pupils.

I daresay a referee in the Premier Football League respects the players. But this doesn't mean the referee doesn't have to apply sanctions when the rules are broken. Indeed a failure to penalise pulling, holding, pushing in the penalty area when a corner is taken does result in near anarchy.

Churches don't have many rules. However trouble results when the church's 'No' does not mean 'No'. Clergy in the Church of England are not supposed to be in a Gay relationship - but some are without sanctions being applied. This brings church discipline into disrepute.

(2) The importance of 'Yes' being 'Yes'. This applies more to Christians than what is written above about 'No'. Christians are liable to make promises they fail to keep. Many years ago I was out carol singing round the village of Brockley. I was collecting the money. I knocked on old Mr Mott's door and had to wait a long time before he opened it. He eventually found some money for my tin. I asked him how he was. "Not a mucher bor." He replied. "Will you come and see me bor?" he asked. "Yes I will," I responded. Mr Arthur Mott died before I got round to visiting him. I took his funeral! I've never forgotten the promise I didn't keep.

(a) The bad consequences for those who make a promise and don't keep it. If you are this sort of person you will lose people's respect and trust. Instead, you will acquire a reputation for unreliability. People will say, "You can't rely on him!"

It is even worse when you keep reminding someone of a promise they have made but haven't kept. I played cricket with a very proficient electrician. I asked him to mend a wall socket that had been broken when my father fell on it. "No problem, JR," said my buddy, "No problem." I kept reminding him of his promise for FIVE years! He never did mend my wall socket.

It is easy to win short-term approval by making a promise to help - it is far harder to keep it. Jesus told a short parable to this effect. See Mt21v28to32.

(b) There are very bad consequences for those who receive a promise that isn't kept. Broken promises result in intense disappointment, lack of trust and cynicism. I have dealt with the devastating effect of a broken promise in my story, The football match.

Church workers have to put up with many broken promises. People who use one of the services the church provides promise to attend on a Sunday - but they never do!

Our 'Yes' should be 'Yes'. We should never make promises we have no intention of keeping.

Jesus made many promises. Sometimes our faith is tested because it does not seem that Jesus is keeping his promises. I watched a program on Friedrich Nietzsche this week. He turned away from God because his father, a Lutheran Pastor, succumbed to a horrible madness. Nietzsche became the philosopher who asserted that God was dead. Later his teachings were distorted and adopted by the Nazis.

The suffering experienced by Christians remains a very real problem. There is no getting away from it. I went to see my old friend Peter this week. He was in hospital. He didn't recognise me and totally ignored me. He spirit had departed although his body lived. Perhaps it was worse for me than him. If God keeps him comfortable and calm doubtless that is much as can be expected.

I do believe Jesus' 'Yes' will be 'Yes'. He will keep his promises; he forgives those who trust in his saving work at Calvary, he gives new life by the Spirit to those who believe in him and he will return to earth bringing all the children of the resurrection with him. He will come again - yes he will - he has promised. We can depend upon it.

(D) A consequence of human weakness. "Anything beyond this comes from the evil one." v37.

Jesus says, give your word and keep your word. If you have to swear a solemn oath to keep your word this is only necessary because of human sinfulness. This seems to be the meaning of Jesus' closing remarks on the subject. There are various translations of Jesus' final words. Literally he said: "Anything more than this is of evil." William Barclay puts it like this: "Anything which goes beyond that (saying no and meaning no and saying yes and meaning yes) has its source in evil. To put it another way: Men and women may under certain circumstances need to be put on oath to remind them of the seriousness of what they are saying.

At a trial in England a witness before giving evidence might be asked to swear on the Bible to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This oath does bring home the importance of honestly telling the truth where justice is at stake.

At a marriage the vows made between a man and woman are made both in the presence of human witnesses and God.

If men and women were not flawed there would be no need for oaths. However we live in a fallen world and so on especially solemn occasions it may be necessary to bring home the seriousness of a commitment by swearing to it in the name of God.

Our Queen at her coronation made several solemn promises. At the end of making these promises the Queen arose from her chair, approached the altar and laying her hand upon the Bible said: "The things which I have here before promised, I will perform, and keep. So help me God."

Police officers in England certainly used to repeat the oath of office: I do solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm that I will well and truly serve the Queen in the office of constable, with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people; and that I will, to the best of my power, cause the peace to be kept and preserved and prevent all offences against people and property; and that while I continue to hold the said office I will, to the best of my skill and knowledge, discharge all the duties thereof faithfully according to law.

Every promise we make, whether intentionally or unintentionally, we make in God's hearing. He expects us to keep our promises - as he keeps His.