“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool... Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Mt 5: 33-37)
When I saw that this passage is part of our Church’s reading for this Friday, I first thought, Let me reflect on some other passage. This one is too problematic. Because we do, after all, “swear,” for example, in a court of law, “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…” Somewhat differently, an incoming President of the United States, or Director of the F.B.I., or some other important office, does “solemnly swear,” on a Bible (or two), that he/she will “faithfully execute the office” of his/her particular position, which includes "not" telling the truth about certain classified information. But most Christians, as far as I know, do not consider this “swearing,” in and of itself, a sin. At least I’ve never heard of anyone picketing or protesting in front of the Supreme Court against all this “swearing,” required by a governmental system, but forbidden by our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, in certain political situations, we are more likely, it seems, to be upset about the "leaking" of the truth to the press, despite one's sworn oath to hide it.
So why don’t we protest, I mean, against the "swearing"? I’m not going to say, as many commentators have said, that Christ didn’t mean what He said. Because I do think He meant what He said, quite emphatically, Do not swear “at all” (μὴ ὀμόσαι “ὅλως”).
We don’t protest against the swearing, I think, because of common sense. And by “common” sense I mean our recognition of, and compassion for, our common, historical reality, in which we do not enjoy the kind of trust toward one another that Christ wanted for us. In His vision for us, our “Yes” and/or “No” should be enough. But we accept, without protest, a way of doing things, like a ritualized way of “truth-telling” and "truth-preserving," by taking solemn oaths, that is not the way our Lord wanted for us. And I dare say, if we, as human beings, can “swallow” this concession to our human weakness, to our lack of trust of one another, – then God can as well. Because He is far more capable of compassion, mercy, and understanding than we are.
Nonetheless, all our swearing and oath-taking often proves insufficient for us, when "leaks" of the truth prove more enlightening. So let this whole topic of “swearing” be a lesson for me today, – not in taking God’s word lightly, but in humble acceptance of our falling short of it, as we are. Because He does that all the time, putting up with us as we are. Thank You, God, for reminding us of Your truth today, but putting up with our distorted way of dealing with it, nonetheless. Glory be to You.