Summary: the church has been conflicted for centuries whether we should make oaths or not. What does this passage teach us about oaths?
Should We Make Oaths?
This passage is another demonstration of the problem with the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees. As we have noticed throughout the study, the failure of the Pharisees was more than a failure to practice what they preached. The problem is that they were trying to practice the wrong preaching. On the surface, they would quote Scripture to try to give authority to their teaching. But their exegesis was actually a perversion of Scripture. Sometimes it was more subtle as in the teaching on murder, and sometimes it was quite blatant where they could break the commandment to honor one’s parents through the trickery of saying they were exempted by God by what was basically an oath to dedicate the service properly rendered to one’s parents to God. Of course, the God they were really refereeing this service to was themselves.
Jesus begins this section as He has the previous ones with “It has been said”. What follows are quotes from the Old Testament, the Scripture which Jesus upholds every jot and tittle of. The bible does indeed teach that one must not make false oaths to the Lord. Anyone who made an oath in the name of Yahweh was culpable if they did. When an oath was made to the Lord in the old Testament, all due diligence was to be made to fulfill the oath to the letter. The emphasis of these verses is that the oaths that were made were to be sincere.
The Pharisees and Scribes were terrified of the name of Yahweh. In fact, they completely avoided even saying the name. Whenever the divine YHVH appeared in the text of Scripture, they would substitute “the Name” for it or LORD (Adonai). They were even unwilling to use the word “God” much and replaced it with “heaven”. They knew rightly that the Name of the LORD was holy and not to be profaned.
When coupled with the obligations of making an oath, the idea of swearing an oath to Yahweh was unthinkable. If one failed to keep the oath, they were doubly guilty before the Judge who would condemn them for it on the Last Day. So when they made an oath, they would substitute the Temple, the gold of the Temple, heaven, earth, or even their own head for the name of Yahweh.
Because the name of Yahweh was not invoked, this also tended to downgrade the seriousness of the oath. Then they started to discuss among themselves which oaths were binding. Some thought, for example, that swearing by the Temple was a binding oath, but swearing by the gold of the Temple was not. These tricksters showed their true hearts and reveals the wickedness of their oaths. Some oaths were made by this subterfuge the equivalent of our making an oath with crossed fingers behind our back. For example, no oath made to a Gentile was binding.
Jesus confronts the teaching and practice of the Scribes and Pharisees by telling His disciples not to make oaths at all. Basically what He is saying here is that all oaths that are made are really made to the LORD. It does not matter what one substitutes for God. If one used heaven, Jesus reminds us that heaven is where God’s throne is. So swearing by heaven is to swear by God’s throne which in turn is to swear by God Himself. If one swears by the earth or “the Land (of Israel)” then one is swearing by the footstool of the throne, which is to swear by God himself. The city of Jerusalem is His city as well.
This leaves the last possibility of swearing by one’s own good name, or as it says here in Greek, by one’s own head. Surely this is not swearing by God and is OK. There are two problems to this. First of all, man is the creation of God in His Image. So even this is indirectly swearing by God. Secondly, as Jesus points out man is powerless to make on white hair black. Of course the wise guy might say that they did not have Grecian formula back in Jesus’ day. But now we can make white hairs black. This of course is to completely miss the point Jesus is making. White hair is the sign of impending death. Man is mortal and is going to die. Because of man’s mortality and limitations, he or she cannot be fully trusted to be able to fulfill one’s oaths, even if they are sincerely made. Add the fact that man is a desperate sinner with an evil and deceitful heart, oaths in a sense become the tool of Satan to trip us up.
So Jesus say then not to make any oaths at all because all oaths directly or indirectly sign God’s name to the oaths of fallible and wayward men. This should make us think carefully about making oaths ourselves. As we have noted in this study on the Sermon on the Mount, the sermon is not addressed to either the first century Jews or to the people of some future millennial kingdom, When the “blessed are those” becomes the “blessed are you” it becomes personally addressed to us as if we were following Jesus that day and came to Him on that mount. Because this sermon is recorded in Scripture, what Jesus says here is addressed to those who consider themselves to be Jesus’ disciples. This sermon ends by separating these disciples into two groups, the wise and true disciples who hear Jesus’ words and puts them into practice and the foolish and false one’s who hear them but do not practice them. In a way the Pharisees and Scribes were the fools of fools and serve as a warning to us as well.