Background to Today’s Text
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ orientation for his disciples. They are about to go forth in his name and change the world. The Sermon on the Mount summarizes the spiritual, moral, and social skills Christians will need to be fruitful. In order to bring light and joy into a dark and troubled world, they will need to discover hidden wells of happiness inside themselves. The beatitudes will help them do that. They will also need to be change agents: like fire to the people around them. And they will need to better govern and discipline their own selves: inwardly as well as outwardly. After all, we do not want to fail because we have been our own worst enemy.
Fluid Text Matthew 5: 33-37
33 The wisdom of old admonishes us: do not break your ritualistic and ostentatious promises—deliver everything you have promised to the Lord. 34 But I’m going to add this: do not get flowery and theatrical at all when you make a promise. Don’t claim to be speaking for God. 35 Don’t claim to be speaking for others. Don’t pretend to know everything, including what will happen in the future 36 Don’t puff yourself up and promise what you can’t deliver. You can’t even manage your own hair some days! 37 Instead, do this: just keep it simple when you work with others. Make your word a clear “yes” or a clear “no.” The more you talk, the more the trouble and pain you risk.
The Message Then
The followers of Jesus are soon going to be taking up challenges in which they will find themselves in over their heads. Soon they will be sent out to raise the dead, cast out demons, heal the sick, and cleanse lepers. They will be proclaiming a new Kingdom in a world where many people prefer what they already have to any sort of revolution. Disciples will be opposed, attacked, and threatened even with death. How will they handle the pressure: by making false promises? Bargains? Spouting a proliferation of words and guarantees, oaths, pledges, and vows?
Jesus realizes that language can get people sidetracked, frustrate the ends, poison their success. So he urges them to keep it simple: yes or no. The more we say, the more the devil gets into the act. It is like a lawyer saying to a client: don’t give any more of an answer than what you are asked. Extra words can lead to disaster.
Swearing an oath (in the Bible) is a way of dragging a third party into a transaction. It is the equivalent of getting a “co-signer” for a loan. It is a way of saying, “if I don’t come through for you, then you can take it out of: God, the earth, my head, Jerusalem, whatever… Such triangulation “transforms a direct, open, frank relationship with others into an indirect one.” (Patte)
Oath swearing provides an “out” so we don’t have to take full responsibility for a situation. We can pass the “cost” onto someone or something else. Jesus, however, will contend that we should each adopt the philosophy, “The buck stops here.” There is no need to swear an oath and bring another blameworthy party into the transaction. We should be “good for our word,” meaning that a simple yes or no will suffice.
Patte also contends that this saying means that we should only promise what we inwardly feel “called” to do. If we feel truly called, and can put our entire selves into it, there will be no need to hedge. To swear an oath is to betray that we are not fully behind the situation ourselves. And if it is not “true” to us, then we should not be saying we’ll do it.
Some of the modern equivalents to we have to the ancient “swearing of oaths” would be our occasional tendencies to obfuscate, equivocate, filibuster, mislead, over-promise, “spin” an issue, “keep our fingers crossed behind our backs” when we make a promise, “pile on” when we have already made a point, and substitute flowery words for action.
History and Culture Notes
In the biblical world, an oath was a formal, ritualistic promise, intentionally and dramatically going “overboard” with words in order to persuade others that you were to be trusted. It was a way of puffing up oneself by “name-dropping.” In others words, you might swear (make your oath) by saying that you were trusted by the heavens themselves, the earth, the king, etc. The “oath” consisted of the content of your promise. The “swearing” was the dramatic manner in which you made your oath and the embellishments you added.
The use of oaths indicated a basic lack of trust among people, hence the need to offer more than a “yes” or “no.” Among Jesus’ followers, there would be such loyalty and integrity that a simple yes or no would be sufficient. The very presence of a sworn oath indicated that distrust prevailed in the community.
Sworn oaths implied a curse upon someone if the promise were not kept. Jesus would have none of this.
- Do: repay the vows you make (ancient ones told us this)
2 Don’t: swear
1b. Do: let your word be a simple “yes” or “no”
2b. Don’t: wander past this simple message, evil meddles beyond
Word recurrence, oppositions, pairings:
- This is the third of five references to an ancient teaching.
- The evil one’s work is contrasted with simple and clear conversation
- The evil one is linked with swearing
There is conflict between swearing and the integrity of God’s abode.
It seems to be that we should keep words and ceremonies to a minimum
- The ancient ones (who taught)
- God (who has a throne and must be respected and treated with holiness)
- The evil one (who tries to get us to go overboard on our words and rituals)
- The disciple: who is trying to keep all these teachings straight
The mood is one of urgency: warning us that if we are not cautious in how we make promises and take on responsibilities, careful with our talk, we will risk incurring a huge mess, which will interfere with our work for Jesus.
Other Relevant Scriptures
When a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.
An oath is a solemn declaration that invokes God or some other sacred object in order to guarantee it.
Judges 11: 29-40
In the most notorious vow ever made, Jephthah promised that if the Lord gave him victory, he would sacrifice whoever he first encountered after the battle as an offering to God. He was successful in battle, and the first person he met was his beloved daughter. So he kept his vow and sacrificed her.
When people are trying to work for God, they often make promises: means to an end. They make bargains. They wheel and deal. Jesus is indicating that there will be no room for this in his movement.
The use of the Lord’s name in vain is likely to occur when someone uses the Lord as collateral in trying to persuade someone to do something.
Fun with Greek
Verse 33: ἐπιορκήσεις (epiorkayseis) is to break a vow or promise.
Verse 33: ὅρκους (orkous) is a simple promise or vow
Verse 34: ὀμόσαι (omosai) is the flowery, ostentatious, dramatic ceremony that issues a vow or promise: custom dictating that one go overboard and with a flourish.
Verse 37: πονηροῦ (ponayrou) is sometimes a reference to “the evil” one (or the devil.) It has other meanings: it can mean pain, travail, hardship, annoyance, and trouble in general.
David Noel Freedman, editor, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible
Barclay Newman and Philip Stine, A Translator’s Handbook on The Gospel of Matthew
Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith
Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic
- When was the last time you heard a commercial that went “overboard” in “swearing” that the product was going to be necessary or valuable to you?
- When are you most likely to get carried away with promise? What words do you use to embellish an “iffy” vow?
- In what ways do we “take God’s name in vain” when we are trying to sell someone on our religion or church?
- What is your “take-away” from this text…something applicable to how you talk?