Governmental Use of
Because there has been some recent
debate in the United States regarding the recent Congressional inauguration
of certain public officials, I will additionally partially quote the Act of
(United States) Congress of 1789:
Be it enacted, etc., That the oath
or affirmation required by the sixth article of the constitution of the
United States, shall be administered in the form following, to wit, "I,
A B, do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be)
that I will support the constitution of the United States.
So, the United States Forefathers
contemplated a distinction between swearing an oath, and an affirmation.
The United States Forefathers recognized that either an
"affirmation" or swearing an "oath" is
proper for public officials in governmental offices, and—as careful drafters—they considered an "oath"
as distinct from an "affirmation" by use of two separate
words. (As an attorney, I restrain myself from presenting the constitutional
analysis here...another day.)
It is quite interesting to me that
various religious groups have taken the historical position that oaths should
not be taken at all. See
for additional information of interest. Why? The reason
may be more clear as we proceed below.
Apparently, only one
US President, Franklin
Pierce, chose to affirm rather than swear an
oath at his inauguration.
Although it might surprise or even
offend some persons, in the United States, swearing an oath and an affirmation
have equal legal significance. As an attorney, I will ask you to
think about something:
you were the juror in a trial charged to judge a person, and an accused witness
approached the stand to testify, and chose to affirm, rather than swear an
oath, would you thereby think, "That person must be guilty or
insincere if that person cannot swear to God?" So Interesting.
Having now set
the foundation with definitions, usage and the teaching, let us now try to
interpret the meaning of Jesus' words.
The teaching is explained
in one scholarly work as follows, "Jesus’ followers should be people
whose words are so characterized by integrity that others need no formal
assurance of their truthfulness in order to trust them. Blomberg, C. (2001, c1992). Vol. 22:
Matthew (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary
(112). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
The New American Bible,
the footnote to Matthew 5:33 provides:
"Let your 'Yes' mean
'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No': literally, “let your speech be 'Yes, yes,'
'No, no.' Some have understood this as a milder form of oath, permitted by
Jesus. In view of Matthew 5:34, 'Do not swear at all,' that is
unlikely. From the evil one: i.e., from the devil. Oath-taking
presupposes a sinful weakness of the human race, namely, the tendency to
lie. Jesus demands of his disciples a truthfulness that makes oaths
unnecessary." Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Board of Trustees, Catholic
Church. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, & United States Catholic
Conference. Administrative Board. (1996, c1986). The New American Bible :
Translated from the original languages with critical use of all the ancient
sources and the revised New Testament (Ge 1:1).
Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.
Although I cannot
dispute the above interpretations, I will nevertheless dissect the issue a
bit. Those interpretations seem to simply say that, "human
beings are weak, and good Christians should be truthful."
That statement may be
true, but it does not resonate with me. I am not satisfied that
those statements reconcile, "Anything more comes from the evil
one." Those definitions would be true with or without Jesus'
important statement. So, I will see if I can find some meaning in
Jesus' closing words, as well.
If we accept the
definitions above, there are two parts to an oath: 1) the act
or predicate of the oath; and 2) the penalty. What appears to be
within the universal definition of an "oath" is the call
upon God as a witness. What is less clear in authoritative
definitions is the penalty, which could be for lying at the time of
the oath or for breaking the oath at a later time, or both.
It seems that there is no
reason to call upon God to be a witness unless the oath-taker intends to call
into the ceremony some negative divine consequence. In other
words, calling God as a witness would be inconsequential without some penalty
for violation of predicate act.
Now, it may be the
purpose of swearing an oath, that, if God is called as the witness, and God
is the judge on the Judgment Day, then there is a perfect connection between
the evidence and the judge because it is thereby (if not otherwise)
first-hand knowledge to the judge. Usually a judge only receives
evidence by testimony second-hand, since the judge is not typically also the witness
of the event at issue.
It is so interesting
to me, that, in any United States court, a judge would be disqualified in any
trial in which the judge is to be called as a witness.
Moreover, calling God
as a witness would seem to be superfluous and unnecessary, since God would
know all and would witness all anyway. So, it seems to be that the
speaker's formal act of pulling God into the ceremony is what creates the
implied negative divine consequence, the penalty, or "imprecation"
in the definition above.
Stated more simply, when
an oath is taken in some scenarios, a statement of fact is stated, and then
an expressed or implied statement of a penalty. For example, "I
will tell the truth, or be condemned." "I will do it, I swear
it on my family's life." In many cases, the penalty is silently
implied, such as, "I swear to God, it is true. [If I lie, God
will know and condemn my soul at the Judgment.]"
Here is the quotation
from the American Idol show on January 17, 2007:
Simon: Is this serious?
Contestant: It is.
Contestant: Look me in the eyes and tell me that is serious.
Contestant: That is definitely serious.
Simon: Swear on your mother's life.
Contestant: I swear.
Simon: Go on.
Contestant: I swear.
Simon: Go on.
Contestant: I swear on my mother's life.
Simon: Swear on your mother's life what.
Contestant: I swear on my mother's life that this is real.
In the above example, the
first is a simple affirmation of truth, the second part is the swearing of an
oath placing into the function a mother's life in God's hands. So,
again, an affirmation is a purely civil issue. An oath
calls upon God. How fascinating!
So, again, why did Jesus teach not to swear oaths? Why did Jesus say that swearing
an oath is "from the evil one"? The answer, to me, is
so sweetly perfect.
To me, Jesus stated it
quite clearly, and, yet, we just do not think about it. Or, at least, I
did not think about it.
Jesus concluded, "You
cannot make a single hair white or black."
In other words, no matter
what oath we swear, we cannot cause the negative divine consequence,
the penalty, or the imprecation. No matter what oath
we take, we cannot make God appear as a witness, and we cannot make God apply
a penalty at our judgment.
is a curse. I can understand that any curse is from the "evil
one" since it is a presumptuous command upon God regarding the judgment
of a soul.
The command or request made in a curse is fundamentally presumptuous.
We do not know all, and what can we, as human beings, really fully and
finally know about the soul?
We have no power to
command God to witness worldly acts, and we have no power to
command God to condemn souls. Whatever we do, right or wrong, good
or bad, we are completely powerless to command judgment upon God, just as we
are powerless to "make a single hair white or black."
God's prerogative to
judge a soul is God's alone. God already knows our heart.
Jesus taught that it is,
quite simply, enough to do what you say. Every word we say is
thereby an implied promise to which we are bound—our word is our bond. To
make a promise is not to swear an oath. To Jesus, it seems there is
no distinction between a promise and a legally-binding promise, although
there may be civil implications in worldly courts. In the Court
of Heaven, God already knows our heart, and whether or not we perjure
ourselves or unnecessarily fail to fulfill the meaning of our words.
So, if the predicate
words are satisfied—as they should be—the penalty is immaterial and
unnecessary. But, again, no one has power to command God to do
anything, including, to perform any penalty on the speaker's soul or
God would already
witness all. God need not be—and cannot be—made to do anything by our presumptuous and self-serving
And, I think the "evil one" would enjoy seeing our
presumptuous commands to God regarding worldly things, when Jesus taught
that judgment is alone for God, and God's will alone be done.
If that is Jesus' meaning
and teaching, then I would understand it. And, if not, I am still the
better for having been provoked to contemplate his words. But,
either way, I do know that I will never hear or give an oath again without
deeply considering it.
It is a new
year. Regardless of how we personally interpret Jesus' words, and
whatever our respective belief is regarding oaths and affirmations—whatever our religion or belief
system—it seems to be a good thing for a
New Year to resolve to do as we say and not to say that which we cannot or
will not do.
That is, to let our
'yes' mean 'yes' and our "no" mean "no."