Watch / Visual Commentaries / Matthew 5:33-37: Oaths and Truth-Telling

Matthew 5:33-37: Oaths and Truth-Telling

Watch a short animated video commentary that explains what Jesus means in Matthew 5:33-37 when he says “let your yes be yes, and your no be no”.

Visual Commentaries May 20, 2024


Jon: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a radical vision of the good life—humans living in right relationship with God and others.

Tim: And to find God’s wisdom about right relationships, Jesus invites us to meditate on God’s commands given in the Torah in six case studies. Let’s look at the fourth one, which is about truth-telling versus manipulation.

Jon: “Again, you have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’”1 So, he’s quoting from a command in the Torah?

Tim: Well, actually, he’s blending together multiple commands from all over the Torah—they all make the same point. If you swear an oath that you’ll do something, fulfill it.2

Jon: And in Jesus’ day, why would you swear an oath?

Tim: Well, in ancient Israel, if you made a promise to another person, you could swear an oath to God that you will do what you say. The oath names God as the one holding you accountable.

Jon: That sounds noble.

Tim: But promises are really permanent, so in Jesus’ day, people looked for subtle ways to back out of their oaths. Jesus names this problem when he says:

Jon: “And I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: not by the sky, because it is God's throne; not by the land, because it is his footstool; and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.”3

Tim: By the time of Jesus, many Israelites avoided using the name of God in daily conversation. And so when they made oaths, they would swear by things closely connected with God, like the sky, or the land, or Jerusalem, instead of swearing by God’s own self.

Jon: Okay.

Tim: But this practice opened the door for manipulation. Like, “Hey, I know I promised that I would pay you back, but I only swore by Jerusalem—not by God himself!”

Jon: So the oath becomes a way to trick people.

Tim: Yeah, and Jesus thinks that’s absurd. I mean, God created and sustains everything—the sky, the land, Jerusalem, even your own head that thought up your oath belongs to your Creator.

Jon: So don’t swear oaths at all.

Tim: That’s what Jesus advocates.

Jon: But then how do you make a promise to someone?

Tim: Well, Jesus goes on: “But let your word be 'yes, yes' or 'no, no.' Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

Jon: Basically, whatever you say you’re going to do, just do it? And avoid oaths altogether?

Tim: Right. Jesus is painting a picture of a world where we don’t have to use God’s reputation to persuade or manipulate each other because transparent honesty is the norm.

Jon: And to do otherwise comes from the evil one?

Tim: Jesus is alluding to that snake in the garden of Eden, who twisted God’s promise in order to trick the humans.4 We unleash the same chaos that that snake did when we twist the truth and back out on our promises.

Jon: So there’s a deeper wisdom in these commands about oaths in the Torah.

Tim: Yes. Doing right by others means resisting the urge to protect ourselves through manipulation. Being honest is one of the most important ways that we can honor each other as images of God.

1. Matthew 5:33
2. See for example Leviticus 19:11-12; Numbers 30:1-2; Deuteronomy 23:21-23.
3. Matthew 5:34-36
4. See Genesis 3.
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