Yes Should Mean Yes
                                  by Lois Tverberg

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for 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. Simply let your `Yes' be `Yes,' and your `No,' `No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. Matt 5:33-37

One saying of Jesus' that is hard for many to understand is about taking oaths. In the Old Testament, God told the people to take their oaths in his name, not in the name of other gods (Dt. 6:13), and that they should not swear falsely in God's name (Lev. 19:12). But Jesus tells people that they shouldn't take oaths at all in Matthew 5. Later, James quotes him almost verbatim:

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment. James 5:12

Interestingly, much later other rabbis are recorded as saying the same thing. The Babylonian Talmud records Rabbi Yossi ben Judah as saying: "Let your "yes" be yes, let your "no" be no.  (Bava Metziah 49a). Philo, a Jewish philosopher of Jesus' time also said, "The bare word of a virtuous man should be like an oath, steadfast, inviolable, and true. Should necessity absolutely require an oath, let a man swear by his father and mother . . . instead of by the name of the highest and first Essence." 1

What was the rationale for avoiding oaths all together?  In Jesus' time, the practice of taking oaths became more and more common to the point that a person's promises were not believed if he had not done so. In ancient times, God himself was invoked as the witness who would guarantee to punish the oath-taker. But, out of reverence for God, people started to try to find other ways to guarantee their words so that God would not be dishonored if what they said did not come true. As Jesus said, some swore by heaven or by Jerusalem, and Philo suggests swearing by one's parents. But the problem still remained that people didn't feel that their words were binding unless they included some oath.

Jesus pinpoints the problem as an issue of integrity. If you have a tendency to break promises and don't want to profane God's name, the solution isn't to swear by something else. Rather, it is to change your attitude so that you become a person whose very words are always the truth, and that you always live out what you say.

1As quoted in "Oath," Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk and Wagnalls, 1905-1906), in public domain at

6 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., All rights
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