33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
A few thoughts for meditation:
The Old Testament forbid a casual use of God’s name in making vows or oaths, and forbid breaking your vows or oaths at all, so long as they were not sinful. If you made a promise or a deal you kept it because it was part of your religious devotion and obedience to God. But in Jesus’ day, a new scheme had evolved which made vows more or less binding depending upon how seriously or closely you invoked God’s name when you made the vow. The idea was that so long as you did no invoke God’s name, you could break your oath without taking God’s name in vain. For example, swearing by heaven and earth was not binding. But swearing toward Jerusalem was, because that was God’s throne. Jesus gave more examples above (and in Mt 23:16-22) of these technicalities created by the religious leaders to avoid keeping your vows. We have the same kind of additions to oaths today whenever someone wants to emphasize their sincerity, like “I swear upon my mother’s grave” or “I swear upon a stack of Bibles”.
So once again Jesus applied the principle of oath-making to the heart. What does it really mean to keep your vows? For starters, you should not make an oath you do not intend to keep. In essence, you are lying. You also should not make an oath if you haven’t counted the cost of keeping it. Because when you make an oath, you have bound yourself to do it before God. Christians should be of such a character that no rhetorical additions need to be added to their oaths or vows. There “yes” is “yes” and there “no” is “no”. This does not mean that swearing by God’s name or making oaths is wrong in itself. There is nothing wrong with saying verbally what you intend to keep from the heart. A true disciple always lives consciously before the face of God, so when they says “yes” or “no” it is a vow from the heart to God, not just empty words. And he should have such a character and reputation for oath-keeping that such additions are not necessary. Its a mark of “evil” when you are looking for an escape clause in your vow the moment you make it.
This issue might seem like a remote ancient problem, but in fact, it’s very much a modern problem too. How many people feel their marriage vows may be thrown aside whenever their “heart” changes? How many people dismiss church membership vows as only a mere formality? How many leaders fail to keep their promises to their constituents once they are elected? How many promise to borrow things but never return them? How many sign contracts for loans or work knowing they don’t intend to keep them? Too often, the cultural rejection of authority applies it’s destructive edge to the authority of our own past vows. We won’t be bound by those in authority, the biological authority of our own genes, much less the authority of our past commitments over our current selves. There’s a reason why many institutions require you to read and sign so many forms detailing what happens when you miss a payment, default on your loans, or violate some standard of company conduct. It’s partly because too many have been burned by those who refuse to keep their word. A simple handshake doesn’t mean what it used to. Our vows should be an expression of who we are before an eternal unchanging God, not an expression of our emotions in the moment. Our obligations to our vows do not change just because our desires have. In the current culture, the popular notion is that we are what we feel to be in the moment. But in the ancient world, you are what you vowed to be. Vows keep you consistent, reliable, and accountable. And as believers, since our vows are always made in obedience to God, our vows are an expression of worship and communion with God. In God’s kingdom, Christ is changing us into honest people, and our vow-keeping must reflect that change.