Saturday, 12 May 2007
I always used to wonder why mainline Christians ignored Jesus' clear instructions in Matt. 5:33-37 about oath-taking. Here Jesus plainly forbids swearing, doesn't he? Here's the passage:
"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
As a result, some Christians refuse to take oaths in a court of law, preferring to affirm. It seems they have a strong case.
But all may not be as it seems. The oaths mentioned - swearing by heaven or Jerusalem - were not taken before judges. Discover the actual context and maybe the passage will start making sense. Here's a clue from the book of Proverbs (20:14):
"Bad, bad," says the buyer,
then goes away and boasts.
Ancient Israel was a bartering society. If you wanted to buy something you were expected to haggle. The oaths in Matthew 5 are those of merchants attempting to convince a customer of the value of their goods. The context isn't about law but trading. This throws a whole new light on the text. Jesus was putting some first century entrepreneurs in their place: God's name is not an appropriate marketing tool.
I'm not sure swearing on a Bible (or even a whole stack of them) is a particularly useful thing to do. Affirmation is certainly a valid option. But nobody needs to feel worried about committing some kind of sinful deed by taking a legal oath either: that isn't what Matthew was writing about. If anyone needs to be worried it's probably the televangelists and tithe farmers who use God as a pretext to rake in the money to finance their lifestyles.
Malina, Bruce J. Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea. Westminster John Knox, 1993.
Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Fortress Press, 2003.