Taking Oaths

Matthew 5: 33-37
2 Cor 5:14-21 / Ps 103

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.
(Matthew 5:34-35)

Lord, don’t let my mouth be debased
When I am mad and prone to swear;
Let my lips utter only praise,
Or give hope to those in despair.

Jesus said to His disciples, “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)

Reflection

In ancient times, people took oaths to bind themselves to an agreement or undertaking. Thus, an oath was taken to seal a covenant that one entered into with his neighbor, or even with his adversary. We see an example of this in the vows exchanged between Abraham and Abimelech at Beersheba (Gen.21:22-34), which served to end a dispute between them, and to establish a covenant. Abimelech said to Abraham, ‘God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, or with my offspring, or with my posterity; but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me, and to the land in which you have sojourned.’ And Abraham said, ‘I swear it.’ In the same book, we also read about the covenant between Jacob and Laban, his father-in-law, who had pursued him into the highlands of Gilead. Laban said, “Come, then, we will make a pact, you and I; the Lord shall be a witness between us” (Gen.31:44).

Stories abound in the Bible relating how the patriarchs in the Old Testament always kept their oaths. The history of Israel, however, is replete with God’s Chosen people constantly breaking their covenants with Yahweh, their God, forgetting their pledges of loyalty, turning to other gods, and indulging in debauchery and pagan rituals. Taking oaths had become meaningless, and because they were taken lightly, the people lost their integrity in the succession of so many broken promises. Worse, oath-taking deteriorated into swearing. This was the reason why our Lord forbade His disciples from taking oaths or swearing. A simple “yes” or “no” would suffice for people who value their integrity. In our Brotherhood, we have made it our cause to promote honesty in all our dealings (“Be honest even if others are not”). In so doing we do not have to bind ourselves with oaths or swearing. We are in fact happy to note that this is what sets us apart from those who use expletives in casual conversations. These are the people that our Lord referred to when He said, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of his mouth.” (Mt.15:11) In the Book of Proverbs, it says in chapter 10, verses 19 – 20: “He who restrains his lips does well. Like choice silver is the just man’s tongue.”

In His teachings, our Lord included swearing as one of the sins He particularly condemned. This is because it is usually a lying tongue that covers its deceit with an oath. Significantly, His lesson on taking oaths follows His condemnation of adultery and divorce (Mt.5:27-32), serious sins that violate the sacred oath of marriage. God has given mankind many lessons in Biblical history that show the dire consequences of violating His covenants. Fidelity in our oaths, written or oral, is most pleasing to God, because it always reflects His divine nature.

“LORD, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy mountain? He who walks with integrity, doing what is right, and speaks truth in his heart … Who keeps an oath despite the cost.” (Psalm 15:1-2,4) Lord, help us to restrain our tongues when we are angry and prone to curse. Let our lips open only to give praise, commend others, or to spread Your Word. Amen.

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