Let your yes be yes

Translation Matthew 5:33-37

33 Again, you heard that it was said to the ancients, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill your oaths to the Lord. 34 But, I am telling you not swear at all; neither by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 35 nor by the earth, because it is the footstool for his feet, nor by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great king, 36 nor should you swear by your head, because you are unable to make one hair white or black. 37 Instead, let your word be “Yes, yes, no, no.” Indeed, more than this is from the evil one.[1]


  1. One of our main tendencies when seeing the words of Christ in places like this is to try to find ways out or exceptions to the rule.
  2. This instinct can be dangerous as it can be simply a way of getting out of what Jesus said.
  3. This instinct can be very wise because it is important to fully understand a command before obeying it or to understand an ideal prior to pursuing it. “Jump.” “How high, on what, when?”
  4. In this case, there are good reasons to ask, “Are there times Christians can take vows?” For instance, Paul takes a vow in Acts (it’s why he cuts his hair in Acts 18:18). The ancient Christians had baptismal/confirmation vows. Similarly, Jesus speaks highly of marriage and never proscribes it, but marriage is a covenant with vows/oaths.
  5. So, what vows is Jesus prohibiting? I think that Jesus is prohibiting vows which endear the speaker to the hearers as a sign of honor. “I swear by the temple that I’ll do thus and such…” Jesus is essentially telling his disciples that while the ancients rightly said, “don’t break oaths, I’m telling you just don’t take them. Instead let your word (yes/no) be enough because it’s based on goodness.”
  6. The reason I feel comfortable interpreting things that way is that I think that Glen Stassen’s triadic structure of the Sermon on the Mount makes the most sense. Each teaching is a three-part block with the emphasis on the third part which is a transforming initiative:
    1. Traditional piety
    2. Cycle of judgment
    3. Transforming initiative
  7. The instruction about the futility of oaths and the reasons for avoiding them is not the actual imperative in the passage, but rather a description of the way things are. The command is “let your word be yes and no.”
  8. The point here is very similar to the point made in chapter six. We’re supposed to do things because we see them as God’s will/the right thing to do, not as a way of advertising our piety to others. Our relationship with God is public insofar as it leads us to do good works. But it is to be hidden insofar as public displays of piety tend to be a part of the world of attention seeking rather than the world of virtue and interior transformation.
  9. So ultimately, the point is simple: let what you say reflect what you’re going to do and then do it or not. Don’t embellish what you say to gain religious honor (which is a silly kind of honor, anyhow).


[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:33–37, “33 Πάλιν ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις· οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις,* ἀποδώσεις δὲ τῷ κυρίῳ τοὺς ὅρκους σου. 34 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως· μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶν τοῦ θεοῦ, 35 μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστιν τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ, μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, ὅτι πόλις ἐστὶν τοῦ μεγάλου βασιλέως,* 36 μήτε ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ σου ὀμόσῃς, ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι ⸂μίαν τρίχα λευκὴν ποιῆσαι ἢ μέλαιναν⸃.* 37 ⸀ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ⸂ναὶ ναί,⸃ οὒ οὔ· τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν.*”


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