“Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one.”
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.
What is your word worth?
Shakespeare put in the mouth of Katherine, kinswoman to King Henry VIII, a negative opinion of the recently-dead Cardinal Wolsey: “He would say untruths, and be ever double, both in his words and his meaning.”
Whenever someone speaks to us, we must run a calculation: What are they saying? Can their words be trusted? Others run the same calculation in relation to us. How does their answer about our truthfulness relate to Christ?
In yesterday’s lesson, Jesus gave negative reasons in support of his command to avoid all oaths (5:34). That negatively-stated theme continues in 5:36. After ruling out any oaths secondarily related to God (e.g. oaths sworn on the temple, heaven, etc.), Jesus says his disciples must not even take oaths related to their own bodies, over which they have little control.
As he has done before, Jesus next drives the spiritual point deep into the heart of his disciples. The disciple who speaks without deception has no need of an oath. In Matt. 5:37, I prefer the ESV’s translation: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” Since God is witness to every word we speak, the use of an oath does nothing to add weight to a disciple’s words.
In the time of Jesus, the Essene community — makers of the Dead Sea Scrolls — held a position very similar to that stated by Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus (A.D. 37 – c.100) described them by saying, “Every declaration they make is stronger than an oath, and indeed they avoid swearing since they regard it as worse than perjury on the grounds that anyone who cannot be believed without an appeal to God is already condemned.”
Consider the unfortunate case of Peter. While Jesus was being accused before the high priest, Caiaphas, Peter was out in the courtyard warming his hands when a slave girl accused him of being a follower of Jesus (26:71). Peter “denied it again with an oath, ‘I do not know the man’” (26:72). He did so again just minutes later (26:74). In fact, two of the three times Peter denied knowing Jesus, he did so under oath. These oaths did nothing to make his words true!
Jesus put his finger on the inner issue of integrity, an issue that affects many aspects of society. Keener points out that Jewish teachers frequently had to arbitrate which oaths were binding. The one swearing an oath wanted to stay as far from implicating God as possible to avoid danger from God over violating the oath. The one receiving the oath wanted as much leverage from God as possible. Jesus cuts through all such practices by saying these oaths give opportunity for evil to find expression.
Should a Christian ever take or make an oath? R.T. France prudently says, “They should not be needed, but in practice they serve a remedial purpose in a world where the ethics of the kingdom of heaven are not always followed.” He also points out that refusing to take a required oath can easily create the wrong impression. Jesus is not making new law; he is demonstrating that the true interpretation of the law leads his disciples to make sure their hearts are right before God, who witnesses their every word.
People of integrity
There should be no doubt that the Bible says a lot about our actions, but a great deal of what happens between people is fueled by words spoken between them. Can those words be trusted? The answer depends directly upon the integrity of the person speaking.
Today’s lesson reminds us of what Jesus promised earlier to the pure in heart: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8). That purity comes out in the integrity of our words. Make them count for Christ!
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 Henry VIII, Act 4, Scene 2.
 Quoted by R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 216, footnote 128, from The Jewish War (2:135).
 Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1999) 194.
 France, Matthew, 216.