“You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!’ because heaven is God’s throne. And do not say, ‘By the earth!’ because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, ‘By Jerusalem!’ for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Do not even say, ‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black. Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one. (NLT)
Telling the truth is not as simple as it seems. A rebellious teenage son may assure his parents he has been to church that night whereas he and his mates stuck their head in the church building and quickly decamped to the local shopping centre for the next few hours. Truth is more than just reciting facts.
It is about an intention not to deceive so as to break or impair relationships. We need to trust others’ promises. Of course there are exceptions in wartime espionage and extreme cases where there is an exceptional need to deceive. Not everyone has a right to my information. But in general, we rely on the trustworthiness of our words.
There were two problems with the oaths being described by Jesus. One was that certain oaths were not actually valid whereas others were. A case of pedantic legalism which had arisen over the years. The other problem was that people’s simple words were not considered trustworthy so that elaborate oaths had to be added to them to back up their integrity. Words became devalued.
Jesus brings us back to the need for simple honesty. Not blurting out all we know: there is a time and place for secrets and withholding. Rather a situation where what we say can be trusted, and what we don’t say is a case of wise discretion not deceit. A society where our words cannot be trusted is no society at all.