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Today's Study

Matthew 5:34: Do Not Swear at All?

Perjury is a serious offence in any law code. It was so in the law of Moses and is forbidden in the third commandment: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain" (Ex 20:7 RSV). To swear an oath falsely in the name of God was a sin not only against the name but against the very person of God. Later the scope of the commandment was broadened to include any light or thoughtless use of the divine name, to the point where it was judged safest not to use it at all. That is why the name of the God of Israel, commonly spelt Yahweh, came to be called the ineffable name, because it was forbidden to pronounce it. The public reader in the synagogue, coming on this name in the Scripture lesson, put some other form in its place, lest he should "take the name of the Lord [his] God in vain" by saying "Yahweh" aloud. But originally it was perjury that was in view in the commandment, and in other injunctions to the same effect from Exodus to Deuteronomy. Summing up the sense of those injunctions, Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oaths, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord' " (Mt 5:33).

Realizing the seriousness of swearing by God if the truth of the statement was not absolutely sure, people tended to replace the name of God by something else--by heaven, for example--with the idea that a slight deviation from the truth would then be less unpardonable. From another passage in this Gospel (Mt 23:16-22) it may be gathered that there were some casuists who ruled that vows were more binding or less binding according to the precise wording of the oath by which they were sworn. This, of course, would be ethical trifling.

It was necessary that people should be forbidden to swear falsely, whether in the name of God or by any other form of words. "Fulfill your vow," says the Preacher whose practical maxims enrich the Old Testament Wisdom literature; "It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it" (Eccles 5:4-5). But Jesus recommends a higher standard to his disciples. "Do not swear at all," he says; "Simply let your `Yes' be `Yes,' and your `No,' `No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one" (Mt 5:37). An echo of these words is heard in a later book of the New Testament: "Above all, my brothers, do not swear--not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your `Yes' be yes, and your `No,' no, or you will be condemned" (Jas 5:12).

The followers of Jesus should be known as men and women of their word. If they are known to have a scrupulous regard for truth, then what they say will be accepted without the support of any oath. This is not mere theory; it is well established in experience. One body of Jesus' followers, the Society of Friends, has persisted in applying these words of his literally. And such is their reputation for probity that most people would more readily trust the bare word of a Friend than the sworn oath of many another person. "Anything beyond this," said Jesus, "comes from the evil one"; that is to say, the idea that a man or woman can be trusted to speak the truth only when under oath (if then) springs from dishonesty and suspicion, and tends to weaken mutual confidence in the exchanges of everyday life. No one demands an oath from those whose word is known to be their bond; even a solemn oath on the lips of others tends to be taken with a grain of salt.

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