SynopsisIn this passage, a continuation of the sermon Jesus has been giving for all of Chapter 5, he talks to the Jews about the concept of swearing an oath. They have been told (in Leviticus 19:12 (ESV) —I didn’t specifically talk to this point in my post on Leviticus 19) that when they swear to the LORD they should not swear falsely, but should do what they say they are going to do, but Jesus says that, really, they shouldn’t swear at all:
But I say to you, Do not take an oath 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. (verses 34–36 (ESV) )
Instead, he tells them, they should simply let their “yes” be “yes,” and their “no” be “no.”
ThoughtsIn this passage, any time that Jesus is talking about “swearing,” he’s talking in the sense of “swearing an oath”—he’s not talking about bad language. Hopefully that’s clear from the context, but I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.
Once again, Jesus is clarifying an Old Testament rule. The rule said that if you swore to the LORD, you should carry out what you had sworn, but Jesus says that it’s better not to swear at all.
One of Jesus’s reasons for saying this is that when you swear “by” something—by heaven, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or even by your own head—you don’t actually own or control the thing you’re swearing by. (That’s right, not even your own head!) The only thing you actually own or can control is your own actions, and even that you don’t completely control, because there can always be outside circumstances that you can’t control. If you’re going to promise to do something, the most you can really promise—as it says in James 4:13–17 (ESV) —is that you’ll try, and if it’s the Lord’s will, it will happen.
There’s a second reason that Jesus also give, here, too, in the last part: You should simply let your “yes” be “yes,” and your “no” be “no.” In other words, you should be honest all the time, so that people begin to recognize you as such. If you say you’re going to do something, you do it, and people learn that they can take you at your word. As mentioned above, sometimes things that are outside of your control will prevent you from carrying out what you promised, but again, if you’re honest, people will realize that when you promise to do something, only things outside of your own control will prevent you from carrying it out. There’s a big difference between saying, “I was going to clean the garage, but I forgot,” and saying, “I was going to clean the garage, but then there was an earthquake and it was swallowed into the ground.”
If people are always asking you to do things, and you say you’ll do it but then you don’t, the usual temptation, the next time they ask you, is to say, “I’ll do it this time—I swear I will!” But all you’re really doing is trying to be emphatic; you still have exactly the same amount of control over the situation as you had all of the other times you promised to do something.
One final note is that I might be taking Jesus’ words here slightly out of context; take a look at verse 33:
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’” (verse 33 (ESV) , emphasis added)
Is Jesus talking specifically about oaths that people would swear to God? Not just general oaths? Does it make a difference here? I don’t think so; I think everything I’ve said here is applicable in our general, day-to-day lives. But context is not something that should never be ignored.