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.
Matthew 5: 33-37
Reflection – (I am away at the Nazareth family camp this week, but left the blog on automatic post-pilot. Comments are moderated, as I am not around to check them.)
We’re going through the Sermon on the Mount, bit by bit, to bask in the light of faith it sheds on our lives in this Year of Faith, and to illuminate any dark corners of our being that may not quite be in that faith just yet.
This little passage is a somewhat obscure light, it seems to me. Most of us are not raised in a culture where oath-taking is a major component of civil life. Signed contracts are the fundamental unit of binding social obligation in our modern world, not sworn oaths.
In the ancient world, it was not thus. And oaths sworn on this sacred thing or that were the norm of social congress and cohesion in that world. So what is Jesus meaning, by saying it is from the evil one?
I don’t claim to have the final word on this or any other Gospel passage, but it seems to me that so much of Jesus’ teachings are about integrity of heart, about the interiority of the human person, about being truly righteous inside and out. Oaths needed to be sworn by sacred objects and entities because the human person, taken in and as a person, was insufficiently trustworthy.
In other words, you and I are not sacred objects or entities, and need these extra boost of oath-taking to be trusted. And this is what Jesus is pushing us to surmount. If I am a child of the kingdom, then my simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ should be sufficient. The Lord is calling us to enter more deeply into our divine dignity, our status as sons and daughters of God in Him.
We live, meanwhile, in a world of deceit, spin, subterfuge, manipulation, and (to put it bluntly) b.s. The taking of sacred oaths has largely passed away from our social contract, but the call to deep integrity, deep honesty, and deep trustworthiness is no less urgent and relevant in our world. To say what we mean and mean what we say, to be simple men and women of the ‘yes and the no’, to eschew all forms of spin doctoring and manipulation and propaganda—this is serious Gospel business in our world today.