The rights and wrongs of swearing
Jesus speaks into the Jewish culture of swearing oaths and opposes it. Christians should not need to add to their words. A yes is yes and a no is no.
Jesus speaks into the Jewish culture of swearing oaths and opposes it. Christians should not need to add to their words. A yes is yes and a no is no.
Hello and welcome to Series 4 and Episode 8: ‘The Rights and Wrongs of Swearing.’ We're in Matthew 5 : 33 to 37.
Introduction and Recap
We're in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount and those of you who've been following earlier episodes will be familiar with the way the Sermon on the Mount is developing. After an initial discussion of attitudes, Jesus explains what it means to fulfil the Law of Moses. Then he goes on to give some extremely practical examples of his new ethical teaching. He compares this with Old Testament teaching - sometimes deepening a Law of the Old Testament and sometimes criticising the way people had misrepresented the Old Testament, or created a saying of their own. We've looked at a number of different examples. The last two have been about sexual ethics: about adultery and lust, and then about marriage and divorce. It's pretty hard-hitting stuff and, immediately, we become aware in the Sermon on the Mount that Christian discipleship is a very radical business and we must get away from the idea that becoming a Christian is mainly just something for your own comfort, something to gain forgiveness and peace for your soul, so that you can just carry on your life as before. No, Christianity is a complete revolution! We are called upon to live a Christ-like life: to follow Christ, follow his teachings, be very distinct in many ways from the community around us, and to draw people to faith in Christ by the radical nature of our lifestyle, as well as the message that we proclaim to people around.
We've looked at sexual ethics - and marriage and divorce as a key examples. Now we turn to something very different but incredibly important. That is - how we communicate with people and what methods of communication we use and, particularly, how we use language of emphasis to underline truthfulness and truth claims. We're going to look at the question of taking oaths, swearing by something. In the English language, we use the word ‘swearing’ to mean offensive language, more generally. I'm using the word ‘swearing’ in a more specific sense: to be taking an oath or underlining your claim to truthfulness by reference to some outside authority - whether it's God, or whether it's something authoritative in your culture, or whether it's something within you or your own resources. The theme indicates the great importance in Christian discipleship of what we actually say and how we say it and this comes up in many places in the New Testament. For Christians, what they say and how they speak is fundamental as a demonstration of their following of Jesus Christ. We're going to read the section, and think about what was going on in Jewish culture in those days concerning taking oaths, which was actually rather a big issue in Judaism and in their culture at the time. Let's read the passage, Matthew 5: 33 - 37:
‘33“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.’ 34But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair (turn) white or black. 37All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”’Matthew 5:33-37, NIV
It's so easy to take an oath, for example, in God's name, to invoke God or Jesus or Christ in your language - it's commonplace in many Western societies. There are many other things we can take an oath on and a good example here, in their context, was Jerusalem. To swear by Jerusalem was to swear by a really important national and spiritual symbol: the capital city, the place where God dwells; the place where people worshipped; the place where God forgives sins - all sorts of symbols come to mind. To swear by Jerusalem, was something that Jews did in the time and you can probably think of some similar examples in your own culture, where people will take an oath relating to something, some symbol in their culture. The interesting thing about this opening statement:
‘“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.’”’Matthew 5:33, NIV
Is that it isn't an Old Testament quotation at all; it's a traditional saying, supposedly summarising an Old Testament position. It doesn't have any authority, as far as Jesus is concerned. In the Sermon on the Mount, sometimes he is dealing with a direct quotation from the Old Testament and sometimes he underlines it - gives a deeper meaning. Sometimes that quotation from the Old Testament has been misrepresented, as we looked at in Deuteronomy 24 in the last episode. Sometimes it's just a traditional saying. Here is just a traditional saying which Jesus dismisses as without authority and not to be followed. Jesus had in mind the Ten Commandments. Nine out of ten of the Ten Commandments are reinforced and applied to Christians in the New Testament. The only one that doesn't carry forward is the Sabbath commandment - the fourth commandment to take the Sabbath rest because that commandment was a particular expression of the covenant between God and Israel in the time of Moses.
Two of the commands that relate to this issue are worth mentioning briefly. The third commandment says, ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name’ (Exodus 20: 7). Then the ninth commandment, ‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.’ (Exodus 20:16). In the Ten Commandments, these two commandments specifically have a very powerful relationship with what we say. They're about what we say and how we communicate truthfully, honestly and appropriately. We shouldn't be invoking the name of God to back up our statements by swearing an oath by him, neither should we be lying to other people, nor giving false testimony to our neighbour. Let's think for a moment about the Jewish cultural context. The taking of oaths had become commonplace, routine and regular. They were a normal part of communication, and the religious teachers didn't criticise this, fundamentally. What they did was they just decided (with their different schools and different teachings) which type of oath you were allowed to take and which type of oath you were not allowed to take. Here is a famous example, that's quite amusing to think about. One rabbi at about this time taught that you are allowed to swear towards Jerusalem, but not by Jerusalem - so you can be looking towards Jerusalem, but you can't swear in the name of, or by, Jerusalem - he said that oath is not binding. You can see that as an example of many rules and regulations about which oath you can use, which oath you are not allowed to use, and it became a habitual part of their culture.
Jesus had something fairly strong to say about this in Matthew 23: 16 - 22, when he is criticising the Pharisees (some of the senior religious teachers) who had a lot to say about, “Oh, you can take this oath but you can't take that oath.” Jesus speaks against this, very clearly. I'm going to read this passage because it gives some good context to what Jesus is saying and will help us move towards the application and try to understand what all this means for us. Matthew 23: 16,
‘16“Woe to you, blind guides!”’ referring to the Pharisees,‘“ You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ 17You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ 19You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.”’Matthew 23:16-22, NIV
Jesus is pointing out the absurdity of the regulations about “you're allowed to take this oath, but you're not allowed to take that oath - it doesn't really matter, you don't have to follow through. If you take this oath you have to follow through because of what you have sworn by.” This may sound all very technical and historical, but it's the context in which Jesus speaks and what he does is, he cuts through all that and gives a completely new way of thinking about how we communicate with other people in terms of accurate information, truthfulness and integrity.
Jesus' Teaching on Taking Oaths
Let's now interpret Jesus' words more specifically. He is absolutely clear:
‘“do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.”’Matthew 5:34-35
Swearing by something is banned for Christians. This type of oath-taking has a tendency towards exaggeration, has a tendency towards deception, has a tendency towards dishonest communication. Oaths can be something behind which people hide - things that aren't true and it distorts the words that you are saying which should have a plain meaning. Jesus tells his followers not to take any oaths; not to bring in the name of God to back up the truthfulness of something they're saying or promising. He particularly says, don't swear by anything spiritual, like God or the Bible, or by anything which is part of your life, like your money or your home or your reputation, or your family. His remedy for all this is speaking truthfully, honestly and simply in everyday conversation. Let your yes, be yes, and let your no, be no. We all live in a world where there is a huge amount of deception; people lie all the time for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it's only a small thing; sometimes it's big things. It really matters in business communication; it really matters when you go to the market; it really matters when you're dealing with your banking or your finances; it really matters when you're putting your trust in family, friends or relatives that what they say is true. It really matters if you entrust your property to someone else and they say, “I promise that I will look after it for you.” We live in a world where language is corrupted because human beings are corrupted. Promises are made and exaggerated statements are made, sometimes in order to deceive people into trusting others and handing things over to them. I'm sure you're very familiar with this in your life and in your context. Trusting other people is a difficult business; they have to earn your trust. Swearing oaths is like a shortcut to gaining other people's trust and Jesus basically says, “Don't take the shortcut!” Christians and disciples live honestly, straightforwardly and they say, “Yes” or “No.” They promise to do things in simple words and they do their very best to fulfil the things that they've promised. They do their very best to show themselves as living with full integrity.
This is really quite a challenging topic and one that's not widely taught in Church, in a very specific way. Jesus knows that abolishing using oaths and swearing isn't going to solve the problem of truthful communication but it's certainly going to be a step in the right direction. It's basically breaking a pattern of miscommunication that people use in order to either deceive or persuade people of things that may, or may not be true.
I want to make some reflections on this topic. We all know what it is to be deceived; we all know what it is for someone to promise a lot and deliver a little. Some of us know the bitter, painful loss of that in personal relationships when people promise to be faithful to you and they're not - marriage partners, business partners, family members. People can let us down - even church members. It can be a bitterly painful process. I want to make some broader reflections on this topic to show how it fits into Christian discipleship and why it's a topic that we can't skirt round and treat as of secondary importance.
First of all, in my reflections, I want to go back to Exodus 20: 7, which we quoted earlier on:
‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.’Exodus 20:7, NIV
You can misuse the name of God in all sorts of different ways but one of them is to swear in his name - to invoke the name of God, Jesus Christ, or any other name for God that you have, in your conversation to backup truth, claim, a promise or a statement that you are making. This is a misuse of the name of God. He doesn't need to be attached to our truth claims; we need to be attached to his truth claims. He is the true one. He is the person who has no shadow of insincerity, or deception, or lying within him; he's completely truthful and we want to be like him.
Another point of reflection that is often considered and discussed amongst Christians is, where does this leave the question of the legal systems. In many countries, where the taking of oaths is part of the process of contributing to the legal process in trial courts and particularly in giving testimony, either for yourself or on behalf of someone else, or as a witness of the state? Many of us, including myself, have been in the situation where we've been called to go in and give a witness statement. In many cultures, and in Western cultures the example is very clear: when you're called to make a statement, you're usually called to take an oath and offered, literally, this book - the Bible - or sometimes some other equivalent. In other cultures it might be a different religious book or a different symbol but it's a formal oath-taking of the legal process. This is not specifically discussed by Jesus, in this circumstance. He's talking about everyday conversation in the public environment. What would he say about a Christian disciple who is called upon to give evidence in a court and he's asked to take an oath? We can't be certain about that answer. Some Christians have assumed from this text that oaths in a court situation were banned by Jesus, but I am not so sure about that, for this particular reason: Jesus himself when he was being tried by the High Priest and the Sanhedrin at the end of his life, was asked to make a statement and to give testimony under oath. This is stated in Matthew 26: 63 on, let me just read a couple of verses here:
‘The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 64“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”’Matthew 26:63-64, NIV
In a legal context, Jesus doesn't contest the taking of oaths. Christians have two different opinions about whether there is a distinction between the legal process and common conversation and life. My own view is that, probably there is a distinction (as implied by Jesus' response to the High Priest) and the focus of the statement here, is common communication with people in all the different social environments in public - the informal and formal social environments that you are in. You must make your own judgement about that particular point.
However, whatever you think about that, Christian discipleship should be characterised by simple truthfulness. Learning to be honest takes time and it's very interesting sometimes, to analyse one's conversation and think, “How honest was I there?” You can find, in your own ordinary conversation, subtle half-truths coming very easily and so there is a great discipline for Christians to always try consciously to tell the truth. If there's something you don't want to talk about because the truth is something you don't want to share in that context - for some reason that may be related to you or may be helpful for some people within that context - of course you have the alternative of not discussing certain things. Simplicity and truthfulness remain vital Christian values: let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Let your words and your deeds match up together.
For example, let's give a common example that often confuses people. One of the things that we talk a lot to each other about in our ordinary social relationships is time. When are we going to do this? When are we going to do that? Which day are we going to do this or that? When am I going to meet you? Where am I going to meet you? What time is it going to be for that meeting? Different cultures have different views of time and what timekeeping means - I don't particularly want to go into that now. I live in a Western culture, in the UK, where the culture basically is, if you say you're going to meet someone at 10 o'clock in the morning or 4 o'clock in the afternoon you basically mean you are going to be there at around that time (as near that time as you can imagine) and if you're very late you owe them an apology. If somebody in that culture consistently promises they're going to be there at 11 o'clock or 5 o'clock, or whatever, but they're always late - they get a reputation. Some of my friends have a reputation that they're never there when they say they're going to be, and sometimes they might fall back into the habit of swearing by something, taking an oath, in order to try and persuade people that they're telling the truth. Jesus says that's the opposite thing we should do; that's reinforcing a lack of integrity in communication.
A better strategy is to say what you mean and to mean what you say, and to be as absolutely straightforward as you can about all the different forms of communication that you have - bearing in mind that you do have the right not to talk about certain things at certain times, because sometimes that's not helpful. That's not at all in conflict with what Jesus is saying here. He is asking for simplicity and truthfulness; Jesus abolishes the taking of oaths and swearing in common communication for all Christian disciples. There's quite a lot of learning to be done from this passage. In some of our cultures in the world, deception and telling things that aren't true is actually honoured as an important part of communication when you're dealing with outsiders or different groups. We do need to think about that as well because that culture needs to be overturned, if we're going to be effective Christian disciples.
Thank you for reading this episode, and I hope you'll join us again for further episodes in Series 4, on the Sermon on the Mount. Thank you.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Is it ever right to tell a lie?
- What kind of ‘oaths’ did the Jews of Jesus’ day make? What oaths are used today?
- How important is the spoken word for your Christian witness? Do you ever question your own honesty?
- Martin comments that oaths can be a way of distorting what you say. Give some practical examples of this.
- Consider how the ‘commandments’ of the old covenant are represented as ‘attitudes’ in the new covenant. Does that make a difference?