On the 19th of October last year, The Magistrates’ Association of England and Wales rejected a proposal to end the practise of swearing an oath on the Bible.
For centuries, magistrates have dispensed justice in England and Wales, and relied on the Bible to force people to tell them the truth.
Its moral force was unquestioned, placing intense pressure on witnesses to tell the truth.
The oath, still sworn by witnesses and defendants as they hold a holy book, has given the English language one of its most familiar sentences.
“I swear by Almighty God [to tell] the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
There are the oaths of office that people take, such as when being sworn in as president of the United States of America.
Is Jesus saying in Matthew 5:33–37 that all of these actions are evil?
Well then, what of the oath that God swore to Abraham? We can see it in Hebrews 6:13, which says: “For example, there was God’s promise to Abraham. Since there was no one greater to swear by, God took an oath in his own name.”
Jesus first summarises the prevailing attitude to oaths by quoting Leviticus 19:12 – “Do not bring shame on the name of your God by using it to swear falsely.” – and Numbers 30:2 – “A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do.”
Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 says, “When you make a promise to God, don’t delay in following through, for God takes no pleasure in fools. Keep all the promises you make to him. It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it.”
The intention of the law is to promote integrity by emphasising that oaths should be taken seriously. That is similar to the use of the oath in British courts and it was the reason given last year for keeping the oath.
Jesus attacks grandiose oath taking that uses religious symbols to make our promises seem more credible. Since heaven and earth and the holy city are not subject to our authority, using them in oaths is gratuitous and meaningless.
More than that, they tend to insult God by reducing him to the role of a guarantor of our words. It is almost like using God in an advert to endorse our product. Is God our servant or hired lackey?
Jesus doesn’t like this kind of oath and tells us not to say these things.
He is not any more lenient with non-religious oaths, such as swearing by the hairs on your head. These days you would more commonly swear on your mother’s life or on your grandmother’s grave.
Again we are seeking to give credibility to our words through associating them with things over which we have no control. Jesus mocks such oaths, saying who can turn their hairs black or white. Obviously he had never heard of L’Oréal.
The reason for these kinds of oaths was that people were habitual liars. It had become necessary to make some special indication that these words were different from your normal words, which could not be trusted. But Jesus is adamant that all of our words should be trustworthy and not ever need any emphasis.
On two more occasions Jesus speaks about oaths.
Matthew 15:3–6 – “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honour their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition.”
Matthew 23:16 – “Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say that it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’ Blind fools! Which is more important—the gold or the Temple that makes the gold sacred? And you say that to swear ‘by the altar’ is not binding, but to swear ‘by the gifts on the altar’ is binding. How blind! For which is more important—the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred?”
Jesus is calling us to be more righteous than the Pharisees, who would use an oath to God to disrespect their parents. He is calling us to a level of righteousness where all people know that we have integrity and there is never a need for an oath to show that these words now are trustworthy.
Jesus takes his own advice when questioned by the High Priest in Matthew 26.
‘Then the high priest said to him, “I demand in the name of the living God—tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus replied, “You have said it.” ’
Can people trust what you say?
Jesus says that every word we speak has to be trustworthy.
When you tell someone you will do this thing or that thing, do they have any reason to doubt you? When you say you will be in a certain place at a certain time, can this be relied on?
Have you ever agreed to meet a friend, who then turned up at a different time than you agreed or even didn’t turn up at all? Jesus says this kind of behaviour is unacceptable.
He demands integrity. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it. If you say it, do it.
When we talk about integrity we are again talking about relationship. Integrity is the relationship between what we think, what we say, and what we do. Are they in harmony with each other? Are they closely related? Are they tightly connected?
As always with Jesus, the focus is not on the obvious external situation. He is not talking about whether it is right to swear on the Bible when giving evidence in a court in England or Wales.
He is talking about your attitude to what you say. He is talking about your integrity. Are your words and deeds reconciled. Do they love each other.
Jesus is yet again intensifying, and he is steering us away from the legalistic outlook of the Pharisees.
Do you have a reputation for honesty? Do all your friends know that you only say what is true? Do all the non-believers who know you trust your words? Are you a person of such integrity that no one would ever think of requiring you to take an oath?
Whatever the world says about white lies and half-truths, Jesus says we should be people of our word. We should be paragons of integrity.
I think all of us have experienced people who are unreliable, who say things easily but don’t follow through. This is not what we are called to be like.
Swiss watches are world famous for their integrity. If a Swiss watch tells you it is 4:27 you know it really is 4:27 and not 4:28 or any other time. That is what we are called to be like. We are forbidden to use an excuse such as, ‘I didn’t promise.’ If you said it, you are bound to your words.
Otherwise, don’t say it. Don’t say ‘yes’ when the real answer is ‘no’.
I understand that there are cultural issues that make it harder, or less intuitive, for some people to adopt this new standard of righteousness. But we belong to a new culture with a new standard. This new culture is the one that Jesus is defining for us week by week through his Sermon on the Mount.
It is a culture that focuses on our inner standards of holiness. It is a culture that demands our integrity. From now on if you haven’t already been doing this please speak honestly and live with integrity. Bring honour to God with your life.
As Jesus says in verse 37: “Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.”