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“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 …” (Matthew 5:33-34)
Have you ever told someone you would pray for them, but forgot to? I have. Worse still, I have promised someone I would pray for them and forgot to, and they called me later to thank me for praying for them, saying, “I felt your prayers and am so grateful for you, Sam.”
Jesus moves from lust, adultery and divorce – all fun topics – to “no swearing oaths.” Now this seems like a misdemeanor, certainly not a felony. Who swears oaths anymore? But then he concludes with these blunt observations, which cast light on his no-oaths admonition:
“And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:36-37)
Peter is the poster boy for swearing oaths about which he cannot make even one hair black or white. At the Last Supper we see Peter “Swearing to God” he will stand by Jesus,
“Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” 34 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” 35 But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” (Matthew 26:33-35)
A couple of hours later he cannot even stay awake while Jesus is in the midst of anguished prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, much less go to death for him:
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. (Matthew 5:40)
Do you think Jesus singled out Peter, among the three sleeping disciples, to remind Peter he should not be swearing oaths of allegiance, when he cannot even stay awake?
And a couple of hours later he is again “Swearing to God,” but this time swearing he doesn’t even know Jesus:
Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” (Matthew 5:74)
Now you may not find yourself in such a critical situation, but you have and you will have multiple opportunities to either, “Swear to God,” or simply let your yes be yes and your no be no. The lesson we can draw from Peter’s flameout is the lesson Jesus’ little brother learned:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)
I am not fond of the “If it is God’s will” statement. It sounds like a cop-out. It sounds to me like you are already saying you take no responsibility for your actions. I doubt Jesus or James meant that. The point is we absolutely do want to take responsibility, and do our absolute best, “as to the Lord always,” but also recognize we are human, and therefore frail and fragile, and at times selfish and myopic.
Therefore, we want to follow Jesus’ counsel and not swear an oath in the first place.
Perhaps in a personal setting we could say, instead of “I promise,” or “I swear I will” – something like, “I sincerely intend to carry through with my commitment. And I will. But I am human.”
Or in a business situation, “You can be sure I will give this my best, and you can be sure I will in no way phone it in. You will get my best effort.”
And after that, just let your “Yes be yes, and your no be no.”
Next Week: “… anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”