33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
When I was a teenager, I used to say this a lot. “I swear”, or “I swear to God…”. I didn’t give it much thought. I thought it was just an expression you used in a conversation, especially to make your point. Everyone around me said it.
Then one day at church, my pastor heard me say it. And she said, “Don’t swear to God.” I asked her why. She replied, “Because you’re using God’s name in vain.” I didn’t understand what the big deal was, but for some reason, what she said stuck with me. And I never said it again.
My pastor wasn’t wrong. You find this throughout Scripture. When Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of Israel, he said—
When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.Numbers 30:2
In wisdom literature, the writer of Ecclesiastes said a similar thing. Again, it is about what it means to keep your word.
When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.Ecclesiastes 5:4, 5
Even in the New Testament, we find James talking about it. Like my scary pastor, he says, “Do not swear by anything”.
Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No”. Otherwise you will be condemned.James 5:12
But before James, there was Jesus. James’ words were taken directly from Jesus’ teaching. Jesus said this in today’s passage.
But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it’s God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.Matthew 5:34-36
Jesus goes further than what was said in the Old Testament. Don’t swear by anything at all. But what’s the big deal? It’s hard to tell what he’s trying to get at.
It’s not the act that’s the issue. That’s not what Jesus is concerned about here. It’s the INTENT that’s the issue. In other words, WHY we do such a thing to begin with. More so than the words, Jesus is concerned with our heart.
Why do we swear by something, even when we are not aware of it? Think about it. We don’t swear by God only. We swear by our life, our mom or dad, and all kinds of things. Why do we feel the need to do that?
We want to PROVE ourselves. We don’t want to be misunderstood. We want to explain and justify ourselves. We want to be believed and proven right. So whoever or whatever we swear by, we use their name as a means for our own gain.
In Jewish culture, names are considered very important. It is not a label for a person. The name is deeply connected to WHO the person is. In the Bible, we see people receiving a ‘new’ name when they change as a person. Jacob became ISRAEL (wrestles with God) Simon became PETER (rock). Names are just as precious and important as the person who bear that name. That’s why God’s name (YHWH) was considered as most holy and precious, not to be taken or used lightly.
In that sense, Jesus’ teaching is not just about swearing an oath. It is more than that. That’s why he puts a complete stop to it. Jesus is teaching us to use our words more thoughtfully. To speak SIMPLY and SINCERELY.
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.Matthew 5:37
Speaking simply and sincerely is an art. It is very difficult to do. We tend to speak in a very complicated way. We don’t know when to stop. We tend to exaggerate and say more than what needs to be said. We use our words to manipulate and get others to do what we want. We even use our words to hide ourselves. We have a hard time saying simply what we mean.
We’ve tried to control what we say. Sometimes it works. But we experience that it doesn’t always work. We often slip and stumble.
Speaking simply and sincerely is not about controlling how we speak. We think that because we see words as ‘tools’ that we can pick up and throw away whenever we want. But words don’t just come from our lips. Words come directly from our heart. They are the expressions of our heart. What we say and how we say them reflect what is going on in our hearts. Many times, our hearts are full of selfish, dark, and negative thoughts. Jesus saw that clearly.
For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.Matthew 15:19
Speaking simply and sincerely begins with cultivating a pure and honest heart. Heart that is completely transparent. It’s not something we can just do by our will alone. We don’t even understand what is going on in our heart all that well. We feel lost as to how to sort our conflicted heart. It is God who changes and transforms our hearts. It is God who cleanses and purifies our hearts. Our desire to be made pure and honest is enough.
Jesus once told a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both went up to the temple to pray.
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’Luke 18:11-13
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
The tax collector prayed simply and sincerely. He was totally honest about what was in his heart. He expressed his desperate need for God. The Pharisee, on the other hand, went on and on about how great he was. His prayer became a means of proving himself. Jesus said it was the tax collector who went home justified.
When you are pure and honest with yourself, you can be simple and sincere with those around you. You are not burdened by the desire to prove yourself. You don’t feel compelled to use your words carelessly, for your own selfish desires. Instead, you uplift those around you with your words. In that sense, speaking simply is not about being blunt, dry or cold. You glorify God with your words. You know when to speak and when to be silent.