Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all:… But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matt 5:33-34, 37)
Swear not at all
The background to this commandment by Jesus is quite relevant today. The command by Moses: “Thou shalt…swear by His Name” (Deut 10:20) was ruthlessly interpreted by the Jews of Jesus’ time as meaning that any oath not addressed directly to the Almighty -“thine oaths unto the Lord” (v. 33) – need not be regarded as binding. It provided a splendid device for deceit in any sort of deal, or indeed any commitment. The answer to this subterfuge was a rigorous embargo on all misuse of holy language, and indeed on all forms of swearing in speech: “I say unto you, Swear not at all”
It was all part of a way of life which had become so familiar as to be taken for granted, sanctioned and even encouraged by the Pharisees (Matt 23:16-22). The simple statement of truth was deemed inadequate. It must be reinforced with the strongest possible oath and with the most flamboyant language available. Thus they diluted the power of words and tampered with men’s sense of truthfulness. If you must emphasize your point, Jesus said to simply say it twice: say “yes, yes”. (Note I disagree with the vast majority of the modern translations, who all have something very similar to “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil [one]” (Matt 5:37 NIV).)1
This reflects a common problem: down through the ages people have sought to find some way of ensuring the statements or commitments are “guaranteed” — at least in view of those making the declaration. There was a time when it simply served, in certain circles, to say “I give my word of honor”. No-one would doubt such a declaration, and it was virtually unknown for anyone to doubt the sincerity, or retract such a commitment, once made. To do so would be to be cast out of society — a terrible penalty.
And even in our time, in most circumstances “oral”2 agreements are enforceable at law, at least in the USA. There was a famous “handshake” agreement between two oil companies, one of which subsequently received a better offer and reneged — which cost them $10 Billion US. And in many local areas significant contracts are made by a handshake, because no local businessman would dream of breaking such a contract, less he loose the respect and trust of the local community.
But why am I telling such stories? I am not going to recount how we observe the commandment of Jesus in our interaction with the local authorities and legal profession: we normally never “swear”, but affirm rather. (It is a sad commentary on our times that the witness in court who for religious reasons chooses to affirm probably carries more weight in his testimony than the one who takes the oath.) It is rather the increasing modern tendency, even within our own community, to doubt the statements of our fellows, even brethren or sisters. How many times have I heard doubts expressed whether or not a certain statement was in fact a true expression of a person’s belief, or heard the statement twisted into a meaning that was clearly not intended. Or have heard “sound bites” used, again out of context, to cast doubt on the veracity of the speaker.
It is clear we need to be careful in all our statements in public. But, it is also clear that when we went to make a point, and ensure we are prepared to stand behind it, here in the verse from Matthew we have a clear guidance. The use of a double emphasis is intended to make sure the hearer understands the import of the statement, and that the speaker will stand behind it. Use with care. But when used, as disciples we should trust that the statement is a true expression of someone’s belief, and neither doubt it, nor cast doubt that it is really meant.
However, this is not the only Scriptural example of emphasis. Time and again in his epistles the apostle Paul expressed himself by an oath of the most impassioned kind:
“I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 9:1).
“For God is my witness, … , that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers” (Rom 1:9).
“Moreover I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth” (2Cor. 1:23).
“The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,… knoweth that I lie not” (2Cor. 11:31).
“Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not” (Gal. 1:20).
It must be evident from examples such as these, that what Jesus would have his disciples avoid is the frivolous misuse of language. He was not forbidding solemn declarations, which are a proper expression of deep emotion. But to follow the example of Paul in present-day circumstances is perhaps unwise, as such language can be seen to be overly emotional in most contexts.
But there is another aspect of the words of Jesus that is significant. The words of Jesus seem to imply that any serious statement should be doubled for emphasis, or at least emphasized in some way. A simple statement, or idle comment as it were, is not treated with the same seriousness, and perhaps does not imply that it is the considered opinion of the utterer. And this also has significant consequences in our walk towards the Kingdom. How many times has a comment, perhaps not particularly well thought out, been used against a disciple — or even a group of disciples. There have indeed been occasions such as this. Two brethren are having a conversation. A bystander overhears, and claims he has heard one of them make a statement, and immediately accuses him of some sort of heresy, and refuses to accept any denials made. And the other brother even declares that they must have been misunderstood: no such statement was made. But this too is refused, and the turmoil spreads.
It is somewhat incomprehensible that such situations arise: but they do, and probably will. If we would ignore any statements made without any special emphasis, much trouble would be avoided.
As Paul says:
“Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Col 4:6).
Perhaps we can paraphrase: Let your speech at all times be pleasant, not antagonistic. Let it be seasoned with the salt of wisdom, and let you know how you ought to answer anyone, for the Hope and the Faith that is in you. Let you use words with care, speak plainly and without using circumlocutions or obscure terms. Let your words, if necessary, be emphasized if you want to be able to truly stand behind your words.
Verbal communications, especially when conducted face to face, is the bedrock of human communication. Written words are so often capable of more than one interpretation, and it is human nature, unfortunately, to use the worst possible interpretation in case of doubt. Without the opportunity to ensure you truly understand a declaration, and perhaps restate in your own words, many misunderstanding have arisen and will so continue. There is a need for written communication, but this should be preceded by ensuring there is no way the written words can be understood, perhaps be ensuring those initially in disagreement at least can express what is their understanding.
And words should never be quoted if out of context. As those in America watch examples of all sorts of statements in the current presidential race, we in our community should be repulsed by the very idea of using such techniques as we all too often see and hear. A word misheard is a very dangerous thing, and the person makes the statement should always be given the benefit of any doubt.
On the other hand, a statement made with special emphasis should always be considered a true statement of a person’s opinion or belief. There tends to be in many circumstances an opinion expressed that “they do not really believe that.” And there is the other side: if you have any doubts, do not say it with emphasis. Many assurances have been given, only to be later retracted: “I did not really mean that.”
“Wherefore, putting away falsehood, speak ye truth each one with his neighbor: for we are members one of another (Eph 4:25).
1. Some of this material is derived from “Studies in the Gospels” by Harry Whittaker.
2. Legally, in the USA “verbal” agreements can in fact be either spoken or written!