Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.' But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the City of the Great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be 'Yes, yes' or "No, no'; anything beyond these is of evil.
(Matthew 5: 33-37 - NAS)
When I look at this passage, I cannot help but think of how little we pay attention to what Jesus says here. Oh, we remember the Commandment that warns us about “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” and so we try and refrain from using His name when we are venting exasperation. And we understand Jesus’ warning about making false vows, promising to do something when we have no intention of doing so. But, as always, He is trying to cut deeper into our understanding of what we are doing.
How many of us have tried to bargain with God? At a guess, I would say all of us have done it at some point in our lives. “Do this, Lord, make this happen for me, and I will always do this other thing!” And then, after a good start, we end up falling doing on that which we have promised the Lord we would do. We don't “fulfill our vows to the Lord.”
So when Jesus tells us not to do such things, when He tells us to stop making such promises, what does He mean? Are we to stop doing things in service to God?
No. I don’t think so. I think His recommendation here has more to do with our reactions to our own failures. Eventually the gaps between our intentions and our actions catch up with us, and we go around feeling guilty about our failures to deliver on our promises. And when we feel that we have failed God in some way, we tend to back away from Him. We become even more conscious of our own unworthiness.
That is the last thing that Jesus wants to see happen, our withdrawal from God, for whatever reason.
So He forces us to look at all the ways we try to convey our earnestness in making promises, to God or to anyone else.
Because He knows how easily we slide off the point, Jesus tells us to make no oath at all. We should not swear by heaven, or earth, or by Jerusalem, or by your own head. Do we do these things? Of course we do! “I swear on my mother’s grave!” “I swear by the life of my children!”
I think in reality, these days, we have gotten so far from understanding the whole point of making an oath or vow that we treat all such declarations very cheaply. We make oaths “on” things we do not even value, that have little meaning to us. Do we even understand what we are doing in the Eternal Realm when we make such a vow? I don’t think we do – not deeply enough, at the very least.
God wants us to refrain from making such vows because we frequently bind ourselves unnecessarily to actions or commitments that are not worth that commitment for all sorts of reasons (a temporary relationship for work purposes, a trivial matter, or worse, a declaration intended to deceive the other person).
When we invoke God as our witness, we involve the Eternal One – the one who never forgets – in our actions. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind declares, “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again!” We understand that the character is determined. By the time she makes this declaration, we have seen her go to great (and dubious) lengths to achieve her ends. But now she invokes God to pay attention to her actions. And we know she may be willing to do anything, no matter its moral value. And now she’s going to drag God along with her.
We invoke the Eternal and Everlasting for our mundane and trivial matters. In doing so, we cheapen the sanctity of God and heaven. Jesus goes on to point out that swearing by earth is no better, for its sanctity comes from being God’s creation, “His footstool”. So we backpedal, to less obviously sacred things to swear by: “By my own head!” But how much control do we have over that, in its real nature? Oh, we can artificially dye our hair, chemically re-energize hair growth, let our hair grow out or cut it. But we can’t really change its core nature. We have no power over it.
What would we do if God withdrew His mercy toward these follies of ours and enforced the binding nature of our oaths? Do we ever consider that possibility? What would we be doing to our lives and the people around us?
In watching the reality show Survivor, we’ve seen players make promises to other contestants swearing on the lives of their children, vows they never intend to honor. All they want to do is persuade the other player to go along with “the plan.” But what if God really did step in? “You swore upon the lives of your children, and you broke your vow. The lives of your children are now forfeited because of your faithlessness.” Ooops. “You swore on your mother’s grave, and you have broken your oath. Her remains shall now be vomited up from the earth, and shall be left exposed and unsanctified because you failed to honor your promise.” “You swore on your life you would do this thing, and you have failed to fulfill that promise. Your life is now over.”
Are we really willing to face those sorts of consequences?
The vows made at a wedding are intense, rightly so. A marital partnership is the most intense relationship we can have, short of our relationship to God. We commit our body, heart and soul to the sustaining of our partner until death parts us. That is the intent, at least.
In court, we vow to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – so help us God.” And then people lie under oath. What would happen if having made this oath (whether or not we include “so help me God”, and God enforced it? Would we be ready to deal with that exposure?
This is why Jesus says that going any further than “yes” or “no” can fall into evil territory. Because it is only God’s love and mercy for us that keeps Him from enforcing our oaths upon us, even our most foolish ones. It would be far better for us to learn to just stick to the simple basics. “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’”
When I sat down on that summer afternoon back when I was in junior high school, reading my way through the Sermon on the Mount, this passage struck me strongly. It made me very cautious about making promises and commitments. I don’t like being forced to commit to something when I don’t know what my circumstances will be, especially when other people are involved. I know that people rely on others to “keep their word” about things, so I try to be as exact and precise as I can about what I can and cannot do. Maybe from the outside that seems wishy-washy on the one hand, or excessively stubborn on the other. But the fact is, if I say “yes” to something, it is because I really want to do the thing, I really want to make that commitment, and any failure on my part to deliver on it will come from circumstances outside my control. That is the intention, at least, one that I try to stick to. “Maybe” and “I don’t know yet” end up being my response to many things initially.
So, how closely do we pay attention to what we say when we make promises? Not enough. We all fall short. By the wonderful Mercy of Our Father, we are not always called to face the eternal consequences of our failures to fulfill our oaths and vows. But we should not abuse Him so, by forcing His commitment to our own follies. Let us be much more careful about what we promise, and how we promise to complete our vows.