“All you need to say
is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
— Matthew 5:37
Recently I was reminded of the good ol’ days of telling fibs on the grade school playground. My buddy would swear that he was telling me the truth. I didn’t believe him. So, I’d tell him to cross his heart, which he’d do as he repeated the tired line: “Cross my heart and hope to die … stick a needle in my eye!” And it turned out that he was still lying … because his fingers were crossed!
Back in Jesus’ day, the religious leaders had some of their own sneaky ways of getting around having to tell the truth. Those leaders, particularly the Pharisees, had developed a complicated system of oaths and swearing they could use as loopholes when it suited them. So, Jesus had those loopholes in mind when he gave us these verses in his Sermon on the Mount:
have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your
oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell
you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s
throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by
Not sure what he means? Well, let’s look at this familiar teaching in a fresh way. In The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases these verses this way: “And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk…. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.”
Remember, Phariseeism is all about looking good on the outside to impress people. So, not surprisingly, the Jewish teachers’ oaths were all about impressing people. In Matthew 23, Jesus levels “Seven Woes” on the religious leaders. In verse 5, he says, “Everything they do is done for men to see.” And in verses 16-19, Jesus points out how hypocritical their oaths and swearing were: “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.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?”
Jesus had good reason to be upset by the religious leaders’ oaths and swearing. They had developed a ridiculous list of nauseating rules that spelled out what you could and couldn’t swear by. “If you swear by this, you have to keep your promise, but if you swear by that, you don’t.” These so-called “religious leaders” were like second-grade boys at recess.
In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus gives his fourth example of the clear difference between the righteousness of Phariseeism and the righteousness that God seeks. To borrow Eugene Peterson’s words, Jesus is condemning the act of “laying down a smoke screen of pious talk.” He is rebuking us for “embellishing our words with religious lace.” And he is scolding us for “manipulating words” to get our own way.
For the follower of Christ, there should be no difference between our truthfulness, from conversation to conversation or from place to place. I should be no less truthful to a stranger on the street than I am to my wife at home. I should be no less truthful to the checkout lady at Target than I am to my kids at school. I should be no less truthful to the cop who pulls me over –Uh-oh! Now it’s getting convicting!—than I am to a friend at lunch.
Jesus Christ is raising the bar, calling us to be honest at all times—saying what we mean and meaning what we say. No embellishing. No half-truths. No white lies. Simple, untainted honesty.
But Jesus is teaching us to be more than just truthful. When he tells us to “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’,” he is also telling us to be reliable. If you say you’re going to be there at 8 o’clock, be there at 8 o’clock. If you say you’re going to pay someone back next Saturday, pay him back next Saturday. If you say you’re going to pray for her, pray for her now.
Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ be ‘No.’ As Christ’s followers, we are called to a higher standard. Jesus expects us to be honest and dependable. It boils down to this: Jesus Christ calls us to be honest and dependable in all of our relationships—from our spouses to our friends to our co-workers. When we do this faithfully, we bring a much-needed taste of heaven to our little corner of the world.
Dane Davis is the Pastor
of Impact Christian Church. Please join us for our in-person worship service Sundays at 9 a.m. at