While some oath-breaking leads to serious consequences, oaths just don’t seem to have the same significance in the modern person’s life as they did in biblical times. Most people know oaths occur in legal proceedings, where witnesses swear to tell the truth before giving testimony. Willfully give false testimony in this context is considered to be the crime of perjury. But outside of this sphere, taking an oath in modern times is largely reserved for times of ritual or ceremony.
In American culture, we see a newly appointed or elected government official swear an oath before taking office. Immigrants take an oath of citizenship when they become naturalized citizens of a country. When reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance, citizens pledge or swear loyalty to their country. Doctors and medical personnel take the Hippocratic oath, swearing to practice medicine honestly. So how are we to apply what Jesus says about oaths in the Sermon on the Mount?
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37)
In his commentary on the gospel of Matthew, Leon Morris noted this passage was peculiar to Matthew, who returned to the theme when He confronted the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:16-22. “Clearly he [Jesus] was interested in the fact that people seemed very ready to swear oaths.” Oaths played a significant role in the life and culture of the Jews. The Mishnah, the first written record of the oral law, contains a complete treatise on oaths. In biblical and ancient times, oaths bound the person to his or her word.
According to the Lexham Bible Dictionary, oaths imposed a great sense of obligation on the individual; and breaking an oath was unthinkable. They were used to confirm the truthfulness of a person’s word, bind individuals in a contract, or confirm God’s intent to act according to His word. “Even rash oaths were binding and required confession of sin and sacrificial compensation if broken” (Leviticus 5:4-6). Yahweh served as the guarantor of a person’s oath, and here it had its greatest power. Breaking an oath was tantamount to breaking faith with Yahweh. Doing so took His name in vain (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12).
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was addressing how a series of quotations from Scripture should be understood. In Matthew 5:33, the Old Testament command to not break an oath (Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2, etc) was paraphrased by Jesus. Then He said his followers should not swear an oath at all! However, sometimes it was necessary—Jesus himself responded when the high priest put him on oath (Matthew 26:63-64). So Jesus is not forbidding Christians from taking an oath, as some individuals apply the restriction today.
Rather, he is saying in the strongest terms possible that his followers must speak the truth. They should never adopt the sense that only when an oath is sworn do they need to be truthful.
The Jews held that unless the name of God was specifically mentioned the oath was not binding; there were lengthy discussions about when an oath is or is not binding, and people would sometimes swear by heaven or earth or a similar oath and later claim that they were not bound by that oath because God was not mentioned. Jesus rejects such casuistry.
This was why Jesus mentioned the forms of oaths used to sidestep telling the truth in Matthew 5:33-37. Remember the Mishnah had an entire treatise on oaths. Heaven, earth, Jerusalem, your head, were all somehow linked to God. You cannot escape the requirement to tell the truth by using these hair-splitting differences. Keep your pledges without insisting that a certain form of words was necessary to make it binding. Essentially Jesus is saying: “No oath is necessary for a truthful person.”
The conclusion of the matter is that it is never necessary for Christ’s people to swear an oath before they utter the truth. Their word should always be so reliable that nothing more than a statement is needed from them. God is in all of life, and every statement is made before him.
The importance of honesty in 12 Step Recovery is well known. Self-honesty begins with recognizing whether or not you are an alcoholic. In chapter 3, “More About Alcoholism,” it says A.A. doesn’t like to pronounce anyone as alcoholic. The suggestion is to try some controlled drinking—more than once. “It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it.”
The manner of life demanded of the person who admits being an alcoholic is even qualified further as rigorous honesty. In discussing what to do after making a personal inventory (the Fourth Step) in chapter 6, “Into Action,” of the Big Book it says: “We must be entirely honest with somebody if we expect to live long and happily in this world.”
As Bill Sees It, a collection of thoughts by Bill W. on the A.A. way of life, cites a 1966 letter he wrote. Bill said that only God can fully know what absolute honesty is. The best we can do is to strive for a better quality of honesty. Sometimes we have to place love ahead of indiscriminate ‘factual honesty.’ In the name of ‘perfect honesty’ we can cruelly and unnecessarily hurt others. “Always one must ask, ‘What is the best and most loving thing I can do?’”
In an August 1961 article for the AA Grapevine, “This Matter of Honesty,” Bill W. observed how the problem of honesty touched nearly every aspect of our lives. While his intended audience was other A.A. members, I think what he said applies to everyone. After commenting on the extremes of self-deception and reckless truth-telling, he noted there were countless situations in life where nothing less than utter honest will do, “no matter how sorely we may be tempted by the fear and pride that would reduce us to half-truths or inexcusable denials.” He concluded the article with:
How truth makes us free is something that we AAs can well understand. It cut the shackles that once bound us to alcohol. It continues to release us from conflicts and miseries beyond reckoning; it banishes fear and isolation. The unity of our Fellowship, the love we cherish for each other, the esteem in which the world holds us–all of these are products of such integrity, as under God, we have been privileged to achieve. May we therefore quicken our search for still more genuine honor, and deepen its practice in all our affairs.
This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”