“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.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
People used to swear something and say, “I will do so and so, and if I don’t let God strike me down,” or something to that effect. But, really, most of the time God didn’t strike anyone down. People would swear by this or that, but they had no power over any of these things. It was all meaningless.
Another issue Jesus had with oaths was that by swearing an oath you are sort of saying I will actually do what I say because I am swearing this oath. Shouldn’t we always do what we say, whether there is an oath involved or not?
Strange to me how we have applied these different teachings in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. The Church made sure to follow Jesus’s instructions on marriage being permanent, but who was ever excommunicated for swearing an oath? We sort of ignored this one and treated the other as a commandment.
Back then society was held together by oaths. It was like this through the age of feudalism with vassels swearing fealty to their lords. We don’t understand this very much anymore because the world has changed. Here’s an interesting historical fact: when St. Francis wrote his rules for the third order, the order for lay people, they were not allowed to own lethal weapons or swear any oaths except for peace. This order grew and grew and led to the decline of feudalism as a system. When people would no longer swear allegiance to their lord or fight his wars, the system fell apart. Score one for the peacemakers!
The mechanism of bondage is that by swearing to tell the truth you are opening the door for lying the rest of the time. In fact the Pharisees made elaborate loopholes in the system of oaths so you could swear by one thing and be bound, and by another and not. It paves the way for dishonesty.
Jesus’s transforming initiative? Say what you mean and mean what you say all the time. Don’t just have special times for the truth. Simply let you yes mean yes and your no mean no. Beautiful.
How refreshing would that be? Just look at our court system. The system is built on oaths, swearing, and suing. It is founded on mistrust, impersonalism, and a complete lack of relationship. And we expect justice from it. We go to Caesar for what Christ has already offered us. Who does that say we trust?