Matthew 5:33-37,  thieving vows

5:33 “Again you have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall perform to the Lord your vows,’ 34 but I tell you, don’t swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God; 35 nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Neither shall you swear by your head, for you can’t make one hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one.”

(Matt 5:33-37 WEB)

Stealing with words

The Hebrew Bible records a range of oaths and vows sworn by both men and God, but it is to the role of these within Israel's criminal justice system that the Sermon on the Mount now turns its attention.

First let’s clear up the distinction between oaths and vows, for they are similar yet different. An oath was a promise to accept certain consequences if something was not done. Hence it was often used as an assurance that a person would do what they said. A vow, however, was a promise concerning the consequences if something was done. Thus vows were (and are) often made in the belief that they encourage divine favour.

The opening formula, “you have heard it said,” reminds us that Jesus was about to present well known material. That it certainly was, for, whilst neither of its two parts is a direct quotation, they reasonably summarise principals found within the Hebrew Bible's legal codes. Familiar they might have been, but such a summary can still be constructed so as to make a point, which is precisely what Jesus does here.

In the first part, “make false vows” (WEB) translates a rarely used Greek word. It's a concise linguistic signpost to a similarly unusual Hebrew phrase, “to swear falsely.” Review the biblical use of that phrase and you will find that it is almost uniquely used in passages that deal with theft.

The sermon, having just dealt with the sixth commandment and then the seventh, had built an expectation in its audience, for surely they expected, just as we would, their preacher to work methodically through their text. Thus Jesus’ audience would naturally have expected him to speak about the seventh next. “You shall not steal” (Exod 20:15 WEB) may not have been mentioned, but, thanks to the linguistic signpost, the Sermon’'s audience would have recognised the change of topic. The start of Jesus teaching on the seventh commandment.

That this was not some arbitrary decision to tackle theft through talking about oaths is suggested by a scriptural precedent that talks about murder, then adultery, and then swearing falsely (you can find it in Jeremiah 7:9).

The phrase “swear falsely” was perhaps most familiar from Lev 6:3, which speaks of wrongfully acquiring property by perjury. Yet the form in Lev 6:3 is already abbreviated, for a fuller form is found in Lev 19:12, “You shall not swear by my name falsely.” By using the abbreviated version Jesus had begun to make his point, but you need to know a bit more about what the Rabbis were teaching in his day before you can appreciate what that point was.

Oaths were given to secure the reliability of a person’s words and, in an economy where bartering was commonplace and such agreements were essential to commerce, a transaction bound by an oath should have been trustworthy. How much more so then, when it came to oaths made by men to God. Yet that was not the situation that prevailed within 1st century Judaism. Legislators had, down the years, developed the concept of a hierarchy of oaths, in which only those that mentioned the divine name were considered binding. Yet Jesus had just highlighted an oath (in Lev 6:3) that did not mention God's name, but which, because of its relationship to Lev 19:12, must have been considered binding.

Amidst 1st Century Judaism people were using the loophole provided by the need to mention God's name as a means to avoid fulfilling their vows. So Jesus remind his audience that they have also been commanded “perform to the Lord your vows” (WEB), for the central issue was whether or not you needed to perform a vow if it did not mention God’s name. Amongst the most fundamental of vows was that of Israel to give a tithe and, thanks to the prophet Malachi, we know that those who failed to perform that vow were robbing God. From the legal perspective, what is true for such an important vow is surely also true for any lesser one, so the heart of the matter was what constituted theft from God.

Swearing by the divine name may have been given a special status amongst oaths, but swearing upon anything set-apart in His name (as his property or for his use) was taken as a use of the name, so such oaths (or vows) were also considered binding. By contrast, oaths sworn upon items that had not been set aside for God's use could be reneged upon without consequence. As Jesus continues to presents his corrective teaching, he will take this concept and demolish it.

Jesus words “but I tell you, don’t swear at all” (Matt 5:34a WEB) have, at various times and in various circles, been taken literally and without any concern for their wider context. Such an approach sees in this statement an absolute embargo on oath-taking. Yet, as many commentators have pointed out, this interpretation is not without its problems. It suggests that Jesus was, on the one hand, setting aside the need for oaths mandated in the Law of Moses, (despite his apparent affirmation of them in Matt 5:18) whilst, on the other, hypocritically compliant when asked to testify under oath before the High Priest (see Matt 26:63 & Ex 22:11). There are further problems, in that the scriptures portray God, who in Christ is our role model, as quite partial to using oaths, and that the apostle Paul also seems quite happy to use them (see 1 Thess 5:27). According to the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus entire priesthood, and with it salvation, relies upon an oath.

Given the issues raised by taking this statement in isolation, it seems more appropriate to understand it in the light of the verses that surround it. The introductory verses suggest that the context is swearing oaths that you do not intend to keep. The latter point in verse 34 and the two in verse 35 then form a logical triplet. Bound together by the Sermon on the Mount’s recurrent theme of walking the righteousness way, but drawing in material from various passages that mention God’s ownership of heaven, earth, and Jerusalem, they then continue to address that theme

When Moses identifies what God requires of his people, it is to walk in his ways and keep His commandments, for “heaven and the highest heavens belong to the LORD your God, also the earth with all that is in it” (Deut 10:14 NKJV). This idea, that God owns heaven and earth, is re-visited in the prophecy of Isaiah as the Lord declares “Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool.” before asking “Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest?” (Isa 66:1 NKJV). The divine question is answered in the prophecy of Ezekiel which encompasses all creation within the Jerusalem temple by declaring it the place of God’s throne and of his feet (Ezek 43:6-7).  From Psalm 48:1-2 comes the identification of Mount Zion (site of the Jerusalem Temple) as both divine property (v1) and the city of the great king (v2).  Similarly Psalm 89 affirms the Lord’s ownership of heaven, earth, and the kingship of Israel, before identifying that sovereignty as the highest of the earth.

By pointing out, in Matt 5:34b-35a, that God owned everything, Jesus effectively eliminates the possibility of an oath that need not be performed. The implication is that one should not swear at all unless you mean it. So it is with that caveat, implied rather than stated, that Christ's injunction not to swear at all is perhaps best understood. Besides, if God owns everything anyway, then of what recompense is any gift or penance.

Verse 36’s reference to swearing by the head, with its focus on hair, appears to recall the Jewish custom of the Nazirite vow. This vow, which was seen as a doorway to extreme holiness, was usually undertaken for a proscribed period. There were some, however, who undertook to live as a Nazirite for their entire lives. Such a perpetual vow was entered into by swearing on both the earth (the topic of an earlier verse) and the head (or more precisely the hairs on one's head). If anyone might expect their lifestyle to attract divine approval then it ought to be a Nazirite, but Jesus goes on to suggest that was not the case.

The idea of turning a single hair black or white also had a distinct cultural significance. Don't think in terms of ageing, for Hebrew uses a different word, (grey) for the hair colour that signified age. Instead think cleanliness, for the diagnosis of a divinely imparted skin disease (often translated as ‘leprosy’) rested on changes in the colour of a single hair, white to black, or black to white. This skin disease, being a sure sign of divine disapproval, marked the sufferer out as unclean. Thus, Jesus implies that God had issued a judgement and that no amount of vows or oaths could alter it. Fortunately, in the punchline to this passage, he offers the solution.

The passage culminates with a statement that, on a cursory inspection, seems little more than a re-working of basic biblical advice.  A fairly literal translation would be “let your words be yes yes no no.” It is true to say that this could be taken as “let your yes be yes” etc., which is the form we find James uses when he cites this passage. Paul also seems to have used the phrases in that way in 2 Cor 1:17. The doubling of the word lending the emphatic sense of 'certainly yes' and 'certainly no.'

It is true that absolute honesty does away with the need for oaths and anything but such honesty implies deceit. Hence it is “of the evil” (or “of the evil one” as alternate readings suggest). But, once again, to those with an awareness of Jewish culture (e.g.  both Jesus disciples and Matthew’s target audience) these words carried nuances that the modern reader could easily miss.

Within the history of Judaism, double-affirmatives were credited with some very significant roles. For example, tradition surrounding the giving of the commandments at Sinai suggested that Israel accepted the terms of the law with the words ‘yes, yes’. Then, from the time of Ezra, when Israel re-formed after exile and assembled to hear the law, we find another double-affirmative on the people’s lips (this time amen, amen). Later still, the book of Judith recalls how the widow Judith stepped up and, with the words ‘yes, yes,’ set in motion her plans to liberate Israel. If yes, yes, was an acceptance of the need for radical reformation, then no, no may simply be its opposite. But again the phrase is rarely used in the Septuagint and, as its one occurrence is precisely on topic, then perhaps we should pay attention when it says that the Lord’s words concerning the guilt of those with no guile on their mouths will be 'no, no'  (Ps 31:2 LXX, Brenton, = Ps 32:2 ESV)

No amount of oaths or vows could render the believer clean (i.e. right) before God, when, with the words 'yes, yes,' they turned back to observing the commandments, then they were assured of the Lord’s ‘no, no’ to their guilt.

Your agreements give something to others and represent a very real exchange. So, failing to keep your word steals something from the person to whom you have given it. When your ‘yes’ becomes ‘no’ or your ‘no’ becomes ‘yes’ then you steal at least another's trust in you, if not something greater. When you guarantee your word by swearing on something for which God has responsibility, then, should you break your word, you steal God’s reputation. God’s decisions are unchanging and, if we follow his example, then ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are enough. Only if your intent is evil will you feel the need to support your words with oaths.

. . . commentary continues with Matt 5:38-42