Matthew 5:33-37

A WORD IS A PLEDGE

Matt. 5:33-37

You have heard that it was said by the people of the old days: You shall not take an oath falsely, but you shall pay your oath in full to the Lord. But I say to you: Do not swear at all, neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God, nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King, nor by your head, for you cannot make one hair black or white. When you say, Yes, let it be yes; and when you say, No, let it be no. Anything which goes beyond that has its source in evil.

One of the strange things about the Sermon on the Mount is the number of occasions when Jesus was recalling to the Jews that which they already knew. The Jewish teachers had always insisted on the paramount obligation of telling the truth. “The world stands fast on three things, on justice, on truth, and on peace.” “Four persons are shut out from the presence of God–the scoffer, the hypocrite, the liar, and the retailer of slander.” “One who has given his word and who changes it is as bad as an idolater.” The school of Shammai was so wedded to the truth that they forbade the ordinary courteous politenesses of society, as, for instance, when a bride was complimented for her charming appearance when in fact she was plain.

Still more did the Jewish teachers insist on the truth, if the truth had been guaranteed by an oath. Repeatedly that principle is laid down in the New Testament. The commandment has it: “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exo.20:7). That commandment has nothing to do with swearing in the sense of using bad language; it condemns the man who swears that something is true, or who makes some promise, in the name of God, and who has taken the oath falsely. “When a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word” (Num.30:2). “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not be slack to pay it; for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin in you” (Deut.23:21-22).

But in the time of Jesus there were two unsatisfactory things about taking oaths.

The first was what might be called frivolous swearing, taking an oath where no oath was necessary or proper. It had become far too common a custom to introduce a statement by saying, “By thy life,” or, “By my head,” or, “May I never see the comfort of Israel if. . .” The Rabbis laid it down that to use any form of oath in a simple statement like: “That is an olive tree,” was sinful and wrong. “The yes of the righteous is yes,” they said, “and their no is no.”

There is still need of warning here. Far too often people use the most sacred language in the most meaningless way. They take the sacred names upon their lips in the most thoughtless and irreverent way. The sacred names should be kept for sacred things.

The second Jewish custom was in some ways even worse than that; it might be called evasive swearing. The Jews divided oaths into two classes, those which were absolutely binding and those which were not. Any oath which contained the name of God was absolutely binding; any oath which succeeded in evading the name of God was held not to be binding. The result was that if a man swore by the name of God in any form, he would rigidly keep that oath; but if he swore by heaven, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or by his head, he felt quite free to break that oath. The result was that evasion had been brought to a fine art.

The idea behind this was that, if God’s name was used, God became a partner in the transaction; whereas if God’s name was not used, God had nothing to do with the transaction. The principle which Jesus lays down is quite clear. In effect Jesus is saying that, so far from having to make God a partner in any transaction, no man can keep God out of any transaction. God is already there. The heaven is the throne of God; the earth is the footstool of God; Jerusalem is the city of God; a man”s head does not belong to him; he cannot even make a hair white or black; his life is God’s; there is nothing in the world which does not belong to God; and, therefore, whether God is actually named in so many words or not, does not matter. God is there already.

Here is a great eternal truth. Life cannot be divided into compartments in some of which God is involved and in others of which he is not involved; there cannot be one kind of language in the Church and another kind of language in the shipyard or the factory or the office; there cannot be one kind of standard of conduct in the Church and another kind of standard in the business world. The fact is that God does not need to be invited into certain departments of life, and kept out of others. He is everywhere, all through life and every activity of life. He hears not only the words which are spoken in his name; he hears all words; and there cannot be any such thing as a form of words which evades bringing God into a transaction. We will regard all promises as sacred, if we remember that all promises are made in the presence of God.

THE END OF OATHS

Matt. 5:33-37 (continued)

This passage concludes with the commandment that when a man has to say yes, he should say yes, and nothing more; and when he has to say no, he should say no, and nothing more.

The ideal is that a man should never need an oath to buttress or guarantee the truth of anything he may say. The man’s character should make an oath completely unnecessary. His guarantee and his witness should lie in what he is himself. Isocrates, the great Greek teacher and orator, said, “A man must lead a life which will gain more confidence in him than ever an oath can do.” Clement of Alexandria insisted that Christians must lead such a life and demonstrate such a character that no one will ever dream of asking an oath from them. The ideal society is one in which no man’s word will ever need an oath to guarantee its truth, and no man’s promise ever need an oath to guarantee its fulfilling.

Does this saying of Jesus then forbid a man to take an oath anywhere–for instance, in the witness box? There have been two sets of people who completely refused all oaths. There were the Essenes, an ancient sect of the Jews. Josephus writes of them: “They are eminent for fidelity and are ministers of peace. Whatsoever they say also is firmer than an oath. Swearing is avoided by them and they esteem it worse than perjury. For they say that he who cannot be believed without swearing is already condemned.”

There were, and still are, the Quakers. The Quakers will not in any situation submit to taking an oath. The utmost length to which George Fox would go was to use the word Verily. He writes: “I never wronged man or woman in all that time [the time that he worked in business]. While I was in that service, I used in my dealings the word Verily, and it was a common saying, `If George Fox says Verily, there is no altering him.'”

In the ancient days the Essenes would not in any circumstances take an oath, and to this day the Quakers are the same.

Are they correct in taking this line in this matter? There were occasions when Paul as it were, put himself upon oath. “I call God to witness against me,” he writes to the Corinthians, “It was to spare you that I refrained from coming to Corinth” (2Cor.1:23). “Now the things that I write unto you,” he writes to the Galatians, “In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!” (Gal.1:20). On these occasions Paul is putting himself on oath. Jesus himself did not protest at being put on oath. At his trial before the High Priest, the High Priest said to him: “I adjure you by the living God–I put you on oath by God himself–tell us if you are the Christ, the son of God” (Matt. 26:63). What then is the situation?

Let us look at the last part of this verse. The Revised Standard Version has it that a man must answer simply yes or no, “anything more than this comes from evil.” What does that mean? It can mean one of two things.

(a) If it is necessary to take an oath from a man, that necessity arises from the evil that is in man. If there was no evil in man, no oath would be necessary. That is to say, the fact that it is sometimes necessary to make a man take an oath is a demonstration of the evil in Christless human nature.

(b) The fact that it is necessary to put men on oath on certain occasions arises from the fact that this is an evil world. In a perfect world, in a world which was the Kingdom of God, no taking of oaths would ever be necessary. It is necessary only because of the evil of the world.

What Jesus is saying is this–the truly good man will never need to take an oath; the truth of his sayings and the reality of his promises need no such guarantee. But the fact that oaths are still sometimes necessary is the proof that men are not good men and that this is not a good world.

So, then, this saying of Jesus leaves two obligations upon us. It leaves upon us the obligation to make ourselves such that men will so see our transparent goodness that they will never ask an oath from us; and it leaves upon us the obligation to seek to make this world such a world that falsehood and infidelity will be so eliminated from it that the necessity for oaths will be abolished.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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