Jesus’ statement from Mt 5.33-37 came up recently in conversation.
“Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (RSV)
Some find this to be a repudiation or rewriting of Deut 6.13 which apparently commands (as opposed to merely allowing) that oaths be taken in God’s name:
“You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him, and swear by his name.” (RSV)
This raises the question of Jesus’ understanding of the sanctity and status of the Old Testament as God’s word. Not only does Jesus dismiss this OT command, he adds that to add anything too our simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ “comes from the evil one.” This seems to mean that obeying Deut 6 in this instance would be evil, as it would “come from the evil one.” Strange indeed.
I’m just thinking out loud on this one, so bear with me, but I think we’re missing the forest for the trees.
If by ‘oath’ one simply means confirming one’s intentions in a contractual way – that can hardly be forbidden. If we don’t do that much, there’s no basic promise being made to which our “going beyond” would be evil. So binding ourselves contractually either to the truth of our statements or our intent to honor terms of an agreement, doesn’t seem to be forbidden by Christ. Paul takes oaths and speaks in terms of adjuring others (Rom 1.9; Phil 1.8; 2Cor 1.23; 1Th 2.5, 10; 5.27).
My own sense is that taking oaths had become so false and corrupted, the truthfulness of one’s statements only came to bear moral importance if one swore. One’s very way of living in the world became divided into two stories. I noticed this in the Middle Eastern Muslim context I lived for years. Using God’s name to bolster one’s claims is an easy way to deflect attention away from the speaker’s character and believability. What it does is divide people from their own word. The weight of their words and promises only carried moral consequence if God was appealed to. Calling on God gave weight and accountability to your words.
But this is just the sort of two-storied worldview Christ wants to expose as false. Christ isn’t saying (I don’t think):
“Don’t swear oaths because when you add God’s name to your promise you run the risk of defaming him in some special way.”
That would be to assume never making oaths is a safe way to avoid offending God. But this leaves the two-storied framework in place. I suggest that Jesus is saying something closer to:
“God is in everything you say to begin with. If you think making mention of him adds something, you’re missing the point.”
The idea is – whether we live or eat or drink or whatever we do (Rm 14.5-9), we do for and unto the Lord. ALL of life is by definition lived “in God’s name.” It’s not that we shouldn’t appeal to it. It’s that we’re in it already with each breath we take, so to feel that you have to add God’s name to your promise is to already have a two-storied view of life that “comes from the evil one.” It’s not that we aren’t to do or say this or that “in God’s name.” It’s that we aren’t to dissect our words and actions into those done in his name and those not done in his name because everything already is in his name. Jesus isn’t repudiating drenching our conversations with explicit references to God, he’s repudiating the idea that God is only consequentially or especially present because we ‘say’ it is so and not all the time as a matter of fact no matter our words. You can add a reference to God that you understand as just a reflection of a truth you live in whether you say so or not, or you can add a reference to God that you think makes your language something it wouldn’t otherwise be. The first is the language of one-storied spiritual life. The second is two-storied talk.
We don’t cease to take oaths, then, because of Christ’s words. We turn all of life into a single promissory note that we give ourselves to in God’s name – everywhere, all the time. Christ raises the bar here rather than lowing it. He’s not commanding that we purge our language of references to God, he wants to save us from that view of God which sees him as present in the world because we put him in it by saying his name. So the reason we shouldn’t appeal to God to bolster our promises is because to do so is already to have excluded him from actions we take without explicitly naming him. When you ‘swear’ you’re pretending God isn’t in the things you say and the promises you make that don’t explicitly mention him, and Christ wants to awaken us to the implicit presence of God in all things, at all times, in everything we say.