“But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” Matthew 5:34–37
It wasn’t that many generations ago when all that was required to seal a commitment was for a person to say they would do something. That was enough, sometimes hands would be shaken over the agreement, but it really wasn’t required; your word had been given and your word bound you to see that what you’d said you’d do was done.
I’ve heard stories of people who almost considered it a personal insult if they were required to sign a contract setting the terms of their agreement. It felt, in a way, that their word wasn’t good enough, they couldn’t be trusted to keep their promise, if their wasn’t a legal document that could be used to coerce them if their was a failure to meet the terms.
It’s clear from Jesus’ words in our focus text that for children of God it’s expected that we would continue to be a people that keep our word.
It was common in Judea in the first century for people to make any number of elaborate assurances and pledges to convince people that they could be trusted to keep their agreements. Oaths would be made claiming the temple as a witness, or the throne of God, or the earth, or heaven, or Jerusalem. Some would even pledge the hair on their head. “All this,” Jesus says, “is from the evil one.”
Think about, why do we feel we need to call witnesses of things that are precious or that we see as enduring? Because even we aren’t sure that we’ll keep our word if we give it so we elaborate on our promises to convince other people that we’re trust worthy when we know we’re unreliable.
“But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’”
If you know you’re able keep your word and you know that you can be trusted to follow through then say, “Yes.” But if your not sure that your capable, if you know that you’re unreliable, don’t say, “Yes,” and then later make a liar out of yourself. It’s better to say, “No,” and then let them find someone else to rely on.
This passage comes home to me. I always intend to do what I say, and most of the time I do, but there are times when I find that I’m unable to follow through, this leaves people in the lurch. It would be far better for me to follow through on the expectations I encourage others to have in me or to not have set expectations at all.
I know things sometimes happen that are out of our control that affect our ability to keep our word but it ought to be a very rare exception to our normal way of working for us to fail to keep our word. And we ought never need to make elaborate promises to convince others that we can be trusted.