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Let Your Yes Be Yes

by Brant Pitre March 13, 2020 0 Comments


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The fourth and final antithesis we are going to look at regards the swearing of oaths.  So once again Jesus goes back to the Old Testament and he says “you have heard that it was said ‘You shall not swear falsely.’”  That's a reference to Moses commanding the people both not to bear false witness, like in the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20), but also just not to swear falsely, like in the book of Leviticus 19.  By contrast, Jesus says “don’t swear at all, but let your speech, whatever you say, be the simple truth.  Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  What are we to make of this passage?  Well there are couple of things we will want to highlight here.  In context, it appears that by the first century A.D., Jews had developed a custom of engaging in what we would call a light oath.  It wasn’t the most solemn form of an oath, it would be a lighter oath.  So someone would swear not by God's name, but they would swear by heaven or they would swear by earth or “I swear by the city of Jerusalem” or “I swear by the hair on my head.”  In other words, they would swear by something other than God that they would do X, Y or Z.  One of the dangers of these lighter oaths is that people would begin to take oaths very lightly.  That they would do them frequently and without regard for the gravity and the seriousness involved in swearing by something.  So Jesus here is forbidding those kinds of oaths and he's enjoining his disciples not to swear at all, but to simply speak the truth.  Don't keep vowing by this or vowing by that, that you are going to do this or you are going to say, or that this is true or that's false.  Just say what you mean.  “Let your yes be yes and your no be no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”  In other words, it's a temptation. — the evil one there being a reference to the devil.

Now this passage, just like the divorce and remarriage passage, becomes controversial.  One of the reasons being that if you look elsewhere in the New Testament, you will see that there are examples of people, like St. Paul the Apostle, using the name of God in a solemn oath.   I am not going to give you examples of this so you can look at 2 Corinthians 1:23 or Galatians 1:20.  So the question becomes is this a contradiction?  This is a great example of a time when we look to the tradition to see how this text has been interpreted throughout the centuries.  Did the ancient Christians interpret Jesus as absolutely prohibiting all oaths using the name of God?  Or was he prohibiting the frequent use of oaths, especially these light oaths using other lesser things like heaven, earth, Jerusalm, or whatnot?   Here I am going to refer to the Catechism because this is an authoritative teaching of the Church.  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2154, it says this, “following St. Paul, the tradition of the Church has understood Jesus' words as not excluding oaths made for grave and right reasons (for example, in court).  And it gives the two passages from St. Paul.  So if we recall that the New Testament is inspired by the Holy Spirit and we put Jesus's statements here in the context of the whole canon, it leads us to the conclusion that this is not an absolute prohibition of oaths, but rather a relative prohibition of oaths that is meant to emphasize, for his disciples, that they should simply speak the truth and not take oaths lightly, but simply let their “yes be yes and their no be no.”  Why?  Because that is why speech is given to us, in order to speak the truth.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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