Continuing his discipleship commentary on embodying kingdom righteousness, Jesus turns to the swearing of oaths, saying “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the LORD.'”
This adage Jesus shares is rooted in various Law passages (Lev 19:12, Num 30:2, Dt 23:21,23). The Law never commands its people to make vows, but should they do so, it says they must fulfill them, especially if they take the vow in the name of the LORD. By Jesus’ time, however, the LORD’s name was seldom invoked for reasons of reverence or paranoia. Instead, when they made vows or took oaths they would swear by esteemed abstractions they would use to vouch for their character and lend to their credibility. For example, if a man vowed or promised to lead a more righteous life, to take on some great responsibility, or to make some great sacrifice, he might swear, as Jesus would reference, on the holy city of Jerusalem, Heaven or Earth, or perhaps on the virility of his hair. In this way, should they break their vow, the LORD’s holy name would not be impugned.
Be that as it may, one can see the silliness in exploiting social landmarks or facts of nature to vouch for one’s credibility, as if any of these have anything to do with the integrity of one’s character. Jesus cuts through the silliness with his solution: “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.”
As places and things are under God’s sovereign control and not ours, and since those places or things have nothing to do with the integrity of our character, Jesus’ solution is to swear on nothing, to make no oath at all. The inherent value of these things we swear upon but do not own or control reveal nothing of our value or character, thus do nothing to establish our credibility; Jesus’ next instructive, however, reveals what does: “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’…”
It is the simple integrity of our character that establishes our credibility. Our credibility or integrity of character are not dependent on places or nature, but on us, on what we have chosen and choose to do. Ourselves are the only ones over whom we have control, so ourselves shall be all we present as credibility of our character.
Since Jesus’ solution both dismisses this empty conventional practice and replaces it with an actual standard of righteousness, we again see the kingdom reality he is establishing on earth is one in which we, his followers, are charged to possess a standard of integrity that surpasses that which is conventionally acceptable. Kingdom residents are bound to the standard of the King, to maintain an integrity rooted in his righteousness.
This can be lived out in different ways. For starters, decide to live out kingdom righteousness deliberately. Sometimes I wonder if we approach our days or situations conflictedly, hoping we’re faithful by accident; enough of that. Be righteous on purpose. Another way is to dispense with drama. Have you ever noticed how drama plays into how we negotiate with God (“God, if I do that, please do this”) or how we talk big about how righteous we’re going to live (“I’m gonna stand for Jesus”). Dispense with the drama; let your hands and feet do the talking. Live righteously simply because it is right to do so. The one who determines to do it deliberately does so because they are shaped by the standard they’ve witnessed Christ set without compromise. Another way is to simply do righteousness today. A side problem with making vows was they inherently forced the vow-maker to be responsible for the future; but just as they had no control over nature or places, they certainly had no control over the future. God does not require your promise of righteousness for tomorrow, just actual righteousness for today.
After conveying this simple standard for kingdom integrity, Jesus adds “anything beyond these is of evil.”
That’s because anything beyond a simple yes or no can often become either an exaggeration of or excuse for one’s character. The wholeness of one’s integrity is comprised of conviction held and conveyed with simplicity, with no reason to make more out of what one has already made clear.
As residents of God’s kingdom, we are to be a people who are so careful with our thoughts and words, so deliberate with our choices and commitments, so as to display an integrity that does not compromise the righteous character of Christ. Hopefully, such carefully cultivated integrity will reveal a heavenly Father whose own integrity, as sovereignly sworn by Himself (Hebrews 6:13-20), has opened to us the way of salvation.