In Jesus day, oaths were a common thing. Let’s imagine that I want my neighbor who lives just outside of Jerusalem to bring his family over tomorrow (he’s got way more kids than I do) to help me finish up harvesting my fields. If I can get it done now and to market early, I'll earn top dollar for the portion I trade with. To get his interest, I tell him that for each person he brings to help he can use one of my donkeys for a week. Fortunately, I have more donkeys than he has kids.
Over the years, my neighbor and I have made a few deals with each other and I haven’t always been real good about fulfilling my end of the bargain. So, my neighbor is naturally suspicious and initially declines my generous offer (come on, one donkey week for one kid day is a pretty good). I’m starting to worry (thinking about the extra profit I'm going to lose), so I pull out my ace in the hole – I swear by everything holy in the temple that I will fulfill my end of the bargain.
I could still be a creep and not do what I say, but in our culture, an oath really means something. As long as I intend to keep my oath and actually keep it, I have fulfilled the law. This causes my neighbor to think twice. His experience tells him to thumb his nose at me and walk away, but once I throw my oath out there, he’s really starting to think about it.
These are the circumstances Jesus addresses in Matthew 5 when he says “you have heard it said . . . do not break your oath . . . but I tell you, do not swear at all.” Why did I make an oath to my neighbor? To get him to do something he probably would not have done otherwise. It was an effort to bypass his understanding and judgment and trigger his will – in my favor. The evil that Jesus is addressing is not broken oaths, but an inherently wrong approach to other human beings. If I act this way, throwing out oaths to get what I want, I’m no longer dealing with a person, but a thing to be moved about to achieve certain results. It becomes impossible for me to recognize the image of God woven into that person. It’s more akin to luring my pet dog with a treat.
In our day and age, oaths are relegated to courtrooms and inaugurations. At best, they are declarations that hold us accountable to perjury laws. On the other hand, we’ve worked manipulation into a fine art form of sublime variations making it difficult to identify the boundaries of truth. This truth fog requires our attention if we want to live out the Kingdom perspective Jesus bring us.
Presentations, pitches, advertising, spin, and the like present ripe opportunities for varying degrees of manipulation and it’s often hard to spot. If I want my yes to be yes, I need to determine (whether a little or a lot) if I'm to circumvent the hearer’s understanding and judgment and get to their will. To what degree am I willing to reduce my message to technical correctness which leans on the hearer to look below the surface and dig for truth? Do I eliminate any information that might be peripheral, but necessary for the hearer to make a fully informed decision? Am I more concerned about persuading than the content of my message or the well being of the hearer?
I’m not pretending this is an easy task. It would be much easier with the old righteousness – as long as I didn’t take the Lord’s name in vain and I did what my oath promised, I fulfilled my duty. But Jesus calls us to a new righteousness – the kind that flows from a transformed heart. It’s messier to be sure, but it sets relationships right in a way the old righteousness never could.