“Let your words be simply, “Yes, yes” or “No, no;” more than this comes from evil.” Matthew 5:37
In these verses, Jesus addresses another topic that you might have trouble connecting with: taking oaths. It was not an uncommon practice at that time to swear oaths when making promises, in order to demonstrate one’s sincerity. These would sometimes include swearing onimportant Jewish religious symbols, or on obvious symbols such as the earth.
We’re not really an oath swearing culture. Maybe you occasionally hear or say, “I swear to God,” to mark seriousness (or mock seriousness), or perhaps you’veseen in movies someone say they swear to something on their mother’s grave. Are these things what we're talking about, or wrong? What are some principles behind oath swearing that Jesus would have us consider?
For starters, notice that some of his rejection of oath taking comes from recognition that each person lacks the necessary authority to be backed by some of these symbols they were claiming. We don’t even have the power to authentically change our own hair color, only dye it for short periods. We are in many ways powerless, dependent on God. Any type of speech that denies this or belittles has potential of denying or belittling him in our lives.
Additionally, due to the weakness and evil that come from our natural sinfulness, we’re terrible at keeping promises. Sometimes we make a promise that we would like to keep, but ultimately we can’t due to weakness or inability. At other times hubris, rashness, or insincerity cause us to make promises we don’t ever intend to keep. In these ways, we are entirely unlike God. He is both powerful to keep all of his promises, and always speaks with perfect integrity about what he will or will not do.
As followers of Jesus, when we pile on grandiosely about certain promises to do or not do something, we show a lack of humility and recognition of our weakness and sin. Even in our best intentions, we should be cautious with our speech, out of recognition of who God is and who we are; James makes a similar point in his letter (James 4:13-16).
Jesus offers us a better way: let our language be honest and simple. This reflects a trust in God and a dependence on him. Take some time to meditate on your speech: are you prone to types of oath-taking which betray a type of breezy arrogance? Or perhaps you are loath to promise anything because you hesitate to be bound in service or obligation to anyone. This is a great opportunity to confess anything that the Lord might bring to your heart and think through what kind of promise making and promise keeping would honor him in your life.
If you don’t yet follow the Lord, consider that he claims to be able to keep every promise he made in Scripture, and to mean every promise that he made. This includes a promise to forgive every sin of the one who comes to him (1 John 1:9) and the promise to destroy death and comfort all pain for those who cling to him (Revelation 21:4). What is a next step for you as you consider his call on your life?