In this post we return to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
With Jesus on the Mountain, surrounded by His disciples and a multitude, we have a picture of God once again giving His Ten Commandments. In a previous post, we covered how radically different these commandments are from the original Ten Commandments. We also covered the first two commandments: 1) murder/anger/put-downs and 2) adultery/divorce. In both cases, the solution to the problem is prevention of bitterness by proactive reconciliation and mutual respect.
Jesus’ Third Commandment is instruction about vows. In short, don’t bother with vows. If we are speaking the truth, God will back us up without the need to invoke His name. If the lie we are telling brings dishonour upon God, He will be our judge whether we have invoked His name or not.
It goes without saying that making an oath in the name of any other god is completely out of the question for a Christian. There are, however, areas involving oaths and truthfulness that are less black and white.
For instance, does Jesus’ statement about “letting your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no is commonly understood to require a standard of truthfulness for every occasion. Is this really the case? There may be circumstances in a dangerous world in which doing God’s will might involve, shall we say, less than full disclosure. For instance, was it wrong for believers in Nazi Germany to lie about whether they were harbouring Jews in their homes? Must believers be completely up-front about distributing Bibles in closed countries?
(There is a similar common understanding about the command against “false witness” in the original 10 Commandments. In that command, the key words are “against your neighbour.” This is a command against slander or false conviction in court. It is not a command requiring truthfulness for all occasions. Naturally, things work much more smoothly if truthfulness is generally adhered to, but that is not the purpose of this particular command. The purpose of the command is to prevent damage to a person’s reputation by slander or to prevent wrongful conviction of innocent persons by false accusation.)
Like its elder counterpart, the language of Jesus’ commandment seems to involve formal, legally binding promises rather than everyday truthfulness. Where possible, making a solemn declaration is to be preferred over making an oath in God’s name. In regular life, wisdom and discretion must prevail in decisions about disclosure and responses to questions. Once again, truth is almost always to be preferred over falsehood under normal circumstances. There may be, however, times when hiding or diverting the truth are the right thing to do. Obadiah’s hiding of 100 prophets of God during the reign of Ahab is one such instance. He could not have hidden and fed them without some sort of cover-up and a network of conspirators. He was apparently a trusted employee of the king who ordered their imprisonment. Leading such a double life undoubtedly involved some degree of duplicity in his dealings with the king, but God does not seem to be excessively troubled by this.
One thing that might not be familiar to the normal Bible reader is the fact that, with the exception of judicial matters, making vows was optional. Jesus seems to be referring to optional vows made regarding offerings to God. If this is the case, this optional vowing may often involve a sort of public boasting about what you intend to do for God. Jesus covers public piety in more detail in other portions of the sermon. Why get God’s name involved if you don’t have to?
If Jesus is referring to all forms of vows, including the judicial, one may ask whether Jesus’ words are intended as a total prohibition or as sage advice to cover most contingencies. For instance, would a Christian be prohibited from holding any job or office that required an oath of allegiance or secrecy in God’s name? Are Christians prohibited from any court testimony that requires an oath?
I’m not sure of the answer to the questions in the preceding paragraph. I think Jesus is referring to the optional vows in this case, rather than all forms of vows. There are probably times when you have no choice but to sign an oath of office or secrecy or allegiance. However, getting God’s name involved in backing up my word still makes me nervous. My understanding of the above could easily be wrong, so wherever possible I try to “solemnly declare” instead of swearing an oath.
God expelled His chosen people out of the Promised Land because they made a public mockery of His great name. Attaching His name to my promises opens me up to the possibility of publicly bringing disrepute upon Him if I fail to follow through. The last thing Jesus needs is yet another follower who brings Him public shame by being making promises he or she doesn’t follow through on.