“But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all…” (Matt. 5:34)
In the second half of Matthew 5, Jesus repeatedly says, “You have heard it said . . .” (Matt. 5:21-48). He never actually says that he’s quoting Scripture. He’s quoting popular proverbs that have been floating around since the time of “the ancients” (5:33). Of course, it’s all based on the Old Testament. The point of the proverb is that these folks are trying to keep the letter of the law.
But, in 5:33-37, exactly what letter of the law are they trying to keep? The first part of the quote in 5:33, which we could literally translate, “Don’t oath-break,” looks like a good summary of Numbers 30:2. The second part, which we could literally translate, “But repay to the Lord your oaths,” looks like a good summary of Deuteronomy 23:21. (Mostly based on the use of the rather general word for “give back” or “repay.”) Now, since Deuteronomy 23:21 talks about repaying “vows,” a lot of versions use that word in Matthew 5:33. But that’s not the word Jesus uses. Jesus uses the word “oaths.” In the Old Testament, you “swear” an “oath,” and these are the only two relevant words Jesus uses in this paragraph.
Jesus wants to talk about oaths.
A vow is a promise you make to God. An oath is something you swear to another person. Now, remember, Jesus is talking to a bunch of ordinary people sitting on the side of a hill. None of these people are going to take an “oath of office” or anything. Jesus isn’t talking about ceremonial oaths. He’s talking about everyday stuff, such as needing to borrow your neighbor’s donkey, so you swear you’ll bring it right back.
These everyday oaths were very common in the ancient world.
Folks would swear oaths for lots of different reasons. A person could swear that they would do something (Matt. 14:6-7), or they could swear that a statement was true (Matt. 26:72). Somewhere in between, they might swear loyalty to someone (Neh. 6:18). Whatever statement they were swearing to, the oath took a recognized form (e.g., 2 Ki. 6:31): There was a core statement—the thing you were swearing to. To this, you would add a “conditional curse” which basically said, “Otherwise, may this horrible thing happen to me.” Lastly, you would invoke some higher authority or sacred thing to guarantee that this curse would happen if your oath didn’t pan out.
So if “the ancients” are focused on keeping the letter of the law, the key word in Jesus’ quote is “to the Lord.” Rather than being the one they are swearing to, God is the higher authority invoked in the oath. They are swearing on Him. That leaves absolutely no wiggle room, as far as the law is concerned. Leviticus 19:12 flatly says, “Do not swear falsely by my name.” If you swear by God, you have to follow through. Period.
However, the implied caveat to the popular proverb is that, if an oath invokes something other than God, then breaking that oath wouldn’t violate the letter of the law.
The law says you can’t swear falsely on the Lord. It doesn’t say you can’t swear falsely on, say, heaven, or the temple, or something else. The rabbis had mixed feelings about this, but many spelled out a lot of circumstances in which oaths weren’t really binding.
Here’s the problem, though. The only reason to swear an oath on something less than God is because you want the wiggle room. You are deliberately hedging your bets. But it goes beyond that. Why not just make your core statement? “I’ll bring your donkey right back.” Why add the oath at all? Because, while you want to hedge your bets, you want to make sure they don’t. You want the other person to commit.
In other words, an oath is not straightforward communication. It is manipulation. It is a way to make sure that the other person does what you want and doesn’t try to look behind the curtain. Because you have information or motives that you don’t want them to see.
That’s one difference between manipulators and, say, leaders.
Both influence people. But good leaders respect the people they are leading. They treat them like grown-ups and tell them what their actual thought process is. Yes, there are plenty of caveats about how leaders handle information and emotional issues. Boundaries apply. But we could say that this style of communication is marked by sincerity. Sincere communication respects people and doesn’t intentionally hide information or motives that might cause the other person to not go along with you.
Good leaders also communicate sincerely because they respect the other person’s interests. They try, at least overall, to make sure that the goal they’re pushing for benefits everyone involved.
Manipulators, on the other hand, are only concerned about their own interests. They don’t really care what the other person’s interests are. They treat people like they are cogs in their machine. Manipulators also don’t care about truth. Any connection between words and reality is irrelevant. As Nietzsche put it, words are simply “a mobile army of metaphors.” Manipulators say whatever they need to say to get their “win.” In other words, manipulators instrumentalize both words and people.
Manipulators instrumentalize both words and people.
That’s what oaths do. In our culture, you can translate “oaths” as any way we try to add an extra guarantee that what we’re saying is true.
Maybe that’s the sociopath who peppers his speech with, “Trust me,” or the sketchy character who does not hesitate to “swear to God!” or the person who makes an “unsolicited promise.” On the surface, all these “oaths” claim to be a guarantee of truth, but the only reason for saying them at all is that there is reason to think that they may not be true. The oath-taker is trying very hard to keep you from noticing that.
So, a false oath isn’t just untrue. It generates trust with the explicit intent of violating that trust. As such, oaths violate the social contract. Indeed, so does the deeper attitude of manipulation.
When words become weapons for manipulation, that which has the power to draw us together instead tears us apart. A society marked by broken trust is a society that can’t function. We become mired in cynicism. We question motives. We doubt we’re getting the whole story. We hold people at arm’s length, and it doesn’t matter if we hear from someone outside our tribe. Prima facie, we simply don’t believe them. We ignore their words and make up whatever we think is behind the curtain. In other words, we get exactly the society that we have right now.
This is the work of the devil (Matt. 5:37)—whose very name (diabolo—“to throw through”) carries the idea of creating separation or division. The “evil one” doesn’t just want to get people to do bad things. He wants to tear them apart.
Jesus seems especially upset that people keep drawing God into this mess.
Here in Matthew 5:34-36 and in Matthew 23:16-22, he reminds the religious leaders that they are monotheists. There are no intermediate powers to swear on. Anything sacred derives its holiness from God. Any authority derives that authority from God.
And God is truth. His word corresponds to reality so strongly that it brings things into being. This whole game of “words as weapons” offends his very nature. To explicitly invoke him in it is blasphemy.
So, if we want to pursue God’s heart on this issue, we need to ask: Do we use words as sincere tools for communication? Or do we use words as cynical weapons for manipulation? A straightforward approach—a “yes” or “no” that has no guile—respects words, respects people, and respects God. “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord” (Zech. 8:16-17, ESV).
A straightforward approach—a “yes” or “no” that has no guile—respects words, respects people, and respects God.