Do Not Swear at All (Matthew 5.33­–37)


(This post was originally written in 2005.)
 
Did President George W. Bush disobey Jesus Christ at his inauguration this past Thursday?
 
According to Matthew 5.33–37, Jesus said, “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.”
 
On Thursday, Chief Justice William Rehnquist led President Bush in reciting the presidential oath of office: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Like every president since George Washington, Bush concluded his recitation with four little words: “So help me God.”
 
Jesus said not to swear at all. Bush swore an oath of office. Jesus said not to swear by anything. Bush swore by God’s help. So he disobeyed Jesus’ direct commandments, right?
 
You might be surprised to learn that throughout the history of the church, rigorist Christian groups have concluded that swearing oaths is in fact a sin. During the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, for example, a number of radical reformers prohibited their followers from swearing oaths in court and swearing oaths of office.
 
The mainstream reformers rejected this legalistic understanding of Jesus’ words, however, and for a simple reason: Jesus himself swore an oath under God! In Matthew 26.63–64, we read: “The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied.” Unless we are willing to charge Jesus with obeying himself, we should probably not charge President Bush with doing so.
 
This conclusion should be obvious. It is common sense. So why did Jesus use such extreme language? What precisely was his point? Simply this: We should be men and women of our words.
 
Look at what Jesus said in Matthew 23.18: “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.” The “blind guides” were “teachers of the law and Pharisees” (23.13). They generated legalistic distinctions so that a person could swear an oath without really meaning to abide by it. For Jesus, this legalism was demonic. For Jesus, yes was yes and no was no. Period. And he expected such integrity of speech from those of us who follow him, whether we’re plumbers or presidents of the United States.

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