My graded midterm arrived in my inbox this morning. Now that it’s safely squared away/ according to the internal logic of publication rights <g>, I’m going to share it with you here. It’s a little longer than most of my posts… but not by much.
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is 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. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Matthew 5:33-37, NIV
Jesus’ injunction on oath-making arrives as the fourth ‘antithesis,’ or intensification of normative Torah interpretation. This sequence of six directly follows Jesus’ announcement, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). The antitheses then demonstrate how Jesus’ fulfilled Law might be lived out on earth as we prepare for the kingdom of heaven.
The rhythm of these pronouncements follows the format: “You have heard,” with a paraphrase of a core teaching; next “but I tell you,” with a deeper look at the heart of the Scripture; closing with an illustration. This rhythm feels like a familiar teaching structure: start with what the students know, introduce what is new, fill in the space between old and new with examples. Humans and education being as consistent as they are, no doubt Jewish learners and teachers of Jesus’ time were also accustomed to absorbing new material this way. Though given the depth of Jesus’ calls to action, it may have been as difficult to absorb then as it is now.
Jesus’ review of oath-making comes after his reviews of murder, adultery, and divorce. While Harper’s Bible Commentary helpfully points out that these first three laws come (essentially) from the Decalogue and the next three from the Holiness Code, I think it is worth noticing that all six center around interactions between individuals. Notice, too, that these interactions move from greater to lesser intimacy: from a person murdering another, to sexual connection, to the severing of an intimate contract, to the contracts implied in oaths, to fairness and legal retribution, and finally to our connections with the abstract others that are enemies.
Oaths, then, happen in the middle rings of an individual’s connectedness. They occur within community, “as God is my witness” (GWTW). So while God is invoked in these verbal commitments, God is never a prime actor in the commitment. The oath-maker is the actor; God’s role is to respond in the absence of action. As Jesus cites, the sections in Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy concerning oaths indeed instruct, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord,’ though only Numbers 30:2 mentions pledges that do not invoke God. The emphasis in the Holiness Code seems to be as much on respecting the power of the name of God as on the communal propriety of keeping your promises.
Jesus’ intensification here is an interesting one. For murder, for adultery, for divorce Jesus by implication dug down to the heart’s attitude that enables a person to perpetuate these deeds. But what’s the dark heart of making an oath? It’s just a pledge. What if I say, “If I get an A on this my first paper in my first seminary class, I will donate $100 to an APTS scholarship fund, as God is my witness!” What’s dark about that?
Pulling God into this human business, that’s what. What does God’s power have to do with this promise? Is God doing the studying? Is God any more or less likely to share the inspiration of the Holy Spirit because of my pledge? If God is more likely to, does that mean God can be bought? All the teachings of the Prophets repudiate that last, so chances are slim the former is true, either. All my invocation, then, is beside the point. I’m the author of my efforts; the outcome rests primarily on me.
In addition to pointing this out, Jesus in this antithesis defends the power of the Name even more deeply than the ancestors did. If these oaths we share between ourselves are essentially dependent on our labors, then why drain God’s power by bringing God’s name into it? If to speak God’s name is to bring God’s presence among us, wouldn’t it be more worshipful to stop invoking God when we’re focused on our contracts and promises? Jesus further points out that we should quit fooling ourselves that by swearing on God’s proxies we’re not really invoking God’s name; after all, why would these other things be worth swearing on if God’s presence weren’t behind them? Even our heads are God’s creations, not our own. Make your pledge under the conditions that are yours to control.
This points to how Jesus’ discussion here is radically current. In some ways, we have moved to the reverse side of oaths: invoking God is not common, but making promises without counting the human cost is. In my communities of women volunteers, I see people look at a group of tasks, and rather than ask, “What truly must be done?” they say, “Well, I will do it. It won’t be done if I don’t.” Yet without an honest internal assessment of available resources, this promise invokes a sort of ambient magic: what time will be taken from spouse or children or health, what energy from other promises, in order to accomplish this additional new task? I feel like a radical speaking bitter truth when I quote, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ ‘No,’” to these well-intentioned people. Because as it is, their fields of ‘Yes’ become withered ‘Noes’ as clock-time refuses to bend, and (in the best cases) only the tasks where their love and joy properly shine get the attention their promises deserve.
When we toss our pledges up in the air, for God or the air to honor, we do not act with integrity—we do not act in a way to sustain ourselves as integral, complete, whole…holy. Jesus calls us to make our human promises completely our own. In the kingdom of heaven, each one will speak their heart’s truth: yes is always yes, and no is simply no. That’s part of Jesus’ promise, and those promises are always sure.
Gone With the Wind, 1939. Quote as cited in IMDB, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031381/quotes. Last accessed 2017-03-08.
Harper’s Bible Commentary. Mays, James L. ed. Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988.
“Leviticus 19:9-36, Holiness in Human Affairs.” 173.
“Matthew 5:21-48, The Antitheses.” 956-7.
“Matthew 5:33-37, Fourth Antithesis: On Oaths.” 957.
NIV passages ref