Again, ye have heard that it hath been said to men of old, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shall perform unto the Lord thine oaths. But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay. For whatsoever is more than cometh of evil. (Matthew 5:33-37)
If you’re going to speak, speak the truth. That, in lovely simplicity, pretty much sums up most of the writings of the Holy Fathers that I’ve read concerning the part of the Sermon on the Mount about oath-taking or swearing.
Oath-taking was fairly commonplace then, and, the foolishness of having to take an oath ultimately points to the folly of humankind’s tendency towards verbosity in all matters.
According to the Explanation of the Holy Gospel of Matthew compiled by the Blessed Theophylact, Christ’s instructions can be summed up with this outline:
- Tell the truth. If everyone is upfront and honest, what need would there be for an oath?
- If you do have to take an oath: keep it!
- Watch out for idolatry: Calling out specifically the home of God in heaven or His creation in earth, or even in Jerusalem, a holy city, would promote idolatry, once people started to misrepresent divine power stemming from local sources.
- We don’t have anything to swear by that is not rightfully God’s. “God alone swears by Himself as He is not subject to anyone or anything. Since we do not have authority over ourselves, how can we swear by our own head?” writes the Blessed Theophylact.
Perhaps the easiest way to not break an oath is to not take an oath at all. St. Augustine wrote, “The righteousness of the Pharisees is not to forswear oneself; and this is confirmed by Him who gives the command not to swear, so far as relates to the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven. For just as he who does not speak at all cannot speak falsely, so he who does not swear at all cannot swear falsely.” Indeed, I must question all the oath-taking by officials being sworn into public office, or people who are called to the witness stand in courts of law. How many people even remember their oath five minutes later? I guess there is hell to pay for not keeping an oath uttered under God. I hope I never have to take an oath myself.
Indeed, speaking falsities will lead one to greater sins, St. John Chrysostom noted. “Why did He go straightway not to theft, but to false witness, passing over that commandment?” he wrote. “Because he that steals, doth upon occasion swear also; but he that knows not either swearing or speaking falsehood, much less will he choose to steal. So that by this He hath overthrown the other sin likewise: since falsehood comes of stealing. But what means, ‘Thou shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths?’ It is this, ‘thou shalt be true in swearing.'”
Let’s not be crafty with our words — but let’s mean what we say and say what we mean. This is a very Orthodox concept! But let us not also overlook the obvious: If swearing is proscribed by the Lord, then we must simply avoid it. The Epistle of St. James pays much heed to the sins of the tongue, and echoes the passage in question here: “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation…” (James 5:12)
In describing the admonitions of St. James against the sins of the tongue, the Venerable Bede said this: “Because he wishes to draw out the deadly poison of the tongue entirely in his hearers, having forbidden them from slandering one another, having prohibited them from judging their neighbor, having restrained them from complaining against one another in adversities, which are obvious sins, he adds also what to some people appears slight, that he may remove the custom of swearing at all. For this is also is clearly evident that it must not at all be taken lightly by those carefully weight the thought of the Lord in which He says, ‘Every careless word which men have spoken they will render an account of on the day of judgment.'”
Also, Bede points out, when we swear, or take an oath, we may fall in into perjury — lying under oath. “In swearing often to the truth you may also sometimes fall into perjury,” he writes. But even if we do not commit the sin of perjury, we also break the spirit of much of the Christian code of conduct laid out in this Sermon, that of minding our words. “But he also falls under the judgment of guilt, who, although he never commits perjury, nevertheless swears solemnly to the truth more frequently than is necessary, because certainly he sins by the very carelessness of overmuch speaking and offends the judge who has forbidden both a useless word and every oath,” Bede adds. Ah, so much evil in life can be avoided simply by shutting one’s trap!