I read in your column that we are a society built on the sacredness of oaths. I thought Jesus said we shouldn’t swear oaths. My Aunt Brandeen belongs to the Quaking Separate Brethren and she won’t even take an oath when they haul her up into court for being rowdy because, she says the Bible the forbids oaths.
Mrs. Tess T. Fye
Dear Mrs. Fye,
I suspect you are referring to Matthew 5, verse 33 and following:
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 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 even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
Reading this, one would certainly assume that oaths are forbidden. Jesus comments on this more fully further on in the Gospel of Matthew (23:16 and following.)
“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’”
To understand this passage you have to understand a little bit of Talmudic thought. One of the most beautiful passages of music in the world, at least according to my tastes is the Kol Nidre, which is sung on Yom Kippur. I will never forget my shock when I first read the words of this heart wrenching melody. It is a legal disclaimer!
“All vows, obligations, oaths, and anathemas, whether called 'konam,' 'konas,' or by any other name, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next (whose happy coming we await), we do repent. May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect; they shall not bind us nor have power over us. The vows shall not be reckoned vows; the obligations shall not be obligatory; nor the oaths be oaths.”
Many rabbis say that the Kol Nidre applies only to vows an individual makes to himself and God, such as, “So help me God, I swear I will lose 50 pounds this year.” Vows made to others are still binding. The origins of the Kol Nidre are obscure. Some say that this dispensation was made to absolve those who were baptized by force. More probably, it was an absolution for any rash promise made to God. The tendency to swear elaborate and easily broken oaths had become an ethical problem for Jews, and this is the sort of thing that Jesus is talking about.
The idea is that any oath I ask God to witness is absolutely binding. For instance, if I swear, well I am a weak human being. If I ask God to witness my oath, I have involved the majesty of God and thus am bound. So how does one get God to witness an oath? Why was it binding if I swear by the gold of the temple, but not by the temple itself? Simple. The gold had been offered to God, and thus was his particular possession sometimes from an offering in fulfillment of a vow. The temple itself was not part of an offering, nor any part of a vow that God had been called to witness. Thus, it was not swearing by God. It may seem odd to you and me, but it worked for the rabbis at the time of Christ, or so I have been told.
In the Talmud there is a whole section on oaths. Oaths are thought to be binding only as far as God permits the circumstances for their fulfillment. Some commentators say that Jews can’t be bound by oaths that force them to engage in forbidden activities. It gets complicated. That’s why Jesus said don’t make oaths that can be squirmed out of. That’s His point, not that you can’t swear to tell the truth in court. Just say Yes and No and mean it! Jesus was dealing with problem that the Kol Nidre tackles in just about the opposite way.
In fact a certain kind of oath is central to Christian life, called the covenant oath and it is unbreakable. One more time; sacrament means oath to the death. “Til death do us part.” Jesus swore this kind of oath at the last supper. (Matt 26: v.27-29) “Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood, the blood of covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in My Father's kingdom.’”
Simple, straight forward and fulfilled on the cross when he tasted the sour wine offered Him by the soldiers and said “It is finished.” The cross was His royal throne and His sacrificial death initiated the Kingdom. That’s what we do at Mass. We join our oath to His. Until the Reformation, Christians believed this completely. Oaths were unbreakable and not to be taken lightly.
In his own account of his trial, St. Thomas More wrote that “Unto the oath that there was offered me I could not swear, without the jeopardizing of my soul to perpetual damnation.” In other words, he believed that to swear an oath falsely would send him to hell. He is quoted as saying “When you take an oath, you hold your soul in your hands." His family came to his jail cell to beg him to sign the oath declaring King Henry VIII to be the head of the Church in England. After all, it was just a scrap of paper. What did it matter? To St. Thomas More it was not just a scrap of paper. It was his soul held in his hands.
Nowadays a marriage vow is just a scrap of paper. A baptismal certificate is just a scrap of paper. Communion and confirmation certificates, they’re just scraps of paper. More was right when he said that to take an oath is to take your soul into you hands, or still worse to take the souls of your children in your hands. Their little souls can run through your fingers like water or blow a way like a morning mist. Be very careful when you swear the oath by baptizing your children or presenting them for first communion or confirmation or when you marry or take religious vows. You are risking your eternal soul and theirs.
Have a nice day,