Friday, May 25, 2012

Jesus on Oaths and Vows

    Jesus next moves on to the subject of oaths and vows. When He says "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord'" (Matt. 5:33; NKJV), He is summarizing the contents of two entire tractates in the Mishnah, one dealing with oaths (Shebuoth) and the other with vows (Nedarim).. The tractates are based, in fact, on actual statements contained in the Torah. False swearing is condemned in Lev. 19:12: "And you shall not swear by My name falsely . . . ," and the duty to keep vows is inculcated in Deut. 23:21: "When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it . . ."
    The rabbis of Jesus' day, however, interpreted these passages in their characteristically legalistic way. The two tractates are filled with detailed discussions about whether one has or has not sworn falsely, or which vows are binding. For example, in Shebuoth 4:13 we are told that if we swear by any of the names of God we are "liable," but if we swear by heaven and earth we are not liable. One gets the impression that in first century Judea and Galilee oaths were rather commonplace. The challenge facing the rabbinical scholars was sorting out which oaths were valid and which ones were not. An example of their reasoning can be seen in a New Testament passage – Matt. 23:16-22.
    This, however, misses the whole point of the passages in the Torah. What God condemns is falsehood, regardless of what form of wording is used. "These six things the Lord hates, Yes, seven are an abomination to Him: A proud look, A lying tongue . . . A false witness who speaks lies . . ." (Prov. 6:16-19).
    Our reputation for honesty should be sufficient to render oaths unnecessary. People should be able to take us at our word. One commentator, William Hendriksen, made this astute observation: " It is characteristic of certain individuals who are aware that their reputation for veracity is not exactly outstanding that the more they lie the more they will also asset that what they are saying is 'gospel truth'" (comm. ad loc.). And so Jesus says, "But let your 'yes' be 'yes,' and your 'no,' 'no.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one" (v. 37).
    Lying is one of the most insidious of all sins. It is tempting because it often looks like an easy way out of an embarrassing or difficult situation. But it is destructive because it undermines trust and destroys relationships. A person who has been lied to feels betrayed and will find it difficult to trust the person who lied to him ever again. And without a basic level of honesty and integrity commerce is impossible. Lying is the very opposite of how God expects us to conduct our relationships with each other. "Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive" (Sir Walter Scott).

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