Haydock Commentary notes on Mt. 5:34: haydock1859.tripod.com/id19.html
Ver. 34. Swear not at all. We must not imagine that here are forbidden all oaths, where there is a just and necessary cause of calling God to witness. An oath on such an occasion is an act of justice and religion. Here are forbidden unnecessary oaths in common discourse, by which the sacred name of God, which never ought to be pronounced without reverence and respect, is so frequently and scandalously profaned. (Witham) — ‘Tis not forbidden to swear in truth, justice and judgment; to the honour of God, or our own or neighbours’ just defence; but only to swear rashly, or profanely
It’s important to remember that Jesus often used a common rabbinical method, hyperbole, when he was teaching. That’s why just a few verses earlier he said this:
If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (Mt 5:29)
Are we supposed to literally gouge our eyes out? No. The point Christ was making was we have to take sin very seriously and avoid what leads us into sin.
This isn’t to say Jesus never spoke literally, (he did, a lot) but just that we have to understand the context of his words so we can understand what he was trying to teach.
So when it comes to swearing, does Jesus here mean we can never make any promises or vows or oaths at all, or is he trying to get a deeper truth across? It seems odd that Jesus would condemn all oaths, when God Himself swore a covenant (which is an oath) with Abraham, and promised to make a new covenant, (oath) which Jesus then established Himself at the Last Supper (Mt 26:26-28)
Also, at Jesus’ trial, the high priest uses his authority to make Jesus under oath tell the truth if he was the Son of God or not, and Jesus complies! (Mt 26:63-64) Clearly, oath swearing is not immoral in and of itself.
But so if Jesus’ words are not meant to be taken literally here, and oaths and vows can be made, how do we take it? I think the last part of Jesus’ statement helps clear things up. “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.” (Mt 5:37)
He’s talking about honesty in speech, and not taking the Lord’s name or any type of promise lightly and using it for trivial matters. Like when people say things like “I swear to G–, that was the best ice cream ever.” That’s wrong. That’s trivializing God’s name.
We need to be honest and straight forward in our speech, and take promises and oaths seriously. That’s what he’s talking about here, not that oaths or vows are somehow evil.
then how come he starts out by refering to the practice of not breaking an oath already made and then saying not to swear at all? sure sounds like he’s saying not to make promises at all to me, but i odn’t really know
Mt.5:33 "Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’
5:34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
5:35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
5:36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
5:37 Let what you say be simply Yes’ or No’; anything more than this comes from evil. There must have been a lot of swearing taking place in people’s conversations at that time – not just in religious vows to God, but “by heaven, …by the earth,…by Jerusalem,…by your head,…”. These are not formal religious vows Jesus is talking about; such vows do not swear by such things.
After rereading and pondering vs 34-36, it struck me that Jesus did not end the teaching after His words “Do not swear at all”. If He had, then it would be pretty comprehensive. But Jesus continues - He explains what He means by “at all” - what swearings are offensive and should cease. “Do not swear at all either by… heaven,…,”.
As commentaries have noted, such swearing must have become frequent in ordinary dealings where a simple, truthful “yes” or “no” was all that was called for.*
Using an example from our Gospel this Sunday (6A), Jesus says that everyone who looks at another (woman) with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Job 31.1 says, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman.” A baptized believer could respond, “Yes. Lord, I’m fiercely committed to purity.” But, being generally resolved to purity is not taking it to the level of covenant. We live in the age of cohabitation without marriage, and porn and explicit images are available everywhere. What is needed is take purity to the level of a covenant, lie Job did.The intensity of the fight demands it. Women could also make a covenant with their eyes so they don’t compare themselves to the attractiveness of other women, where the data can lead to jealousy and daydreaming. Making a covenant with God, backed by daily prayer, takes the power of the Cross and plunges it through all curiosity.
It’s worth noting, however, that in our Gospel today, Jesus teaches us, “do not take a false oath; in fact, “do not swear any oath at all.” Jesus forbids taking oaths for personal advantage, like swearing by heaven, or the temple or jerusalem, but not swearing by God’s name so back then, they felt that they could break their oath because God is higher then the thing they swore by. Jesus is saying don’t do this because truthfulness and integrity must govern private life.
But, keep in mind: Jesus is giving a sermon or a speech here. Jesus is using hyperbole in his rhetoric to make his point stick. He didn’t mean to prohibit all oaths. He was addressing their misuse.
Canon law recognizes making a private vow to God, which is like making a personal covenant. Also consider Marian consecration, whereby one agrees to place oneself at the service of Jesus through Mary. Also consider public vows, like marriage vows, and religious vows and promises.
In the case of a private vow or private promise or personal covenant, if it is violated, it must be confessed. The confessor also has the faculty to release one from the private vow or promise if one asks and prudence dictates it.
Also think about Fr Luther who made an oath to become a priest when he was frightened in a storm. Keeping the oath he made so unadvisedly caused untold damage to the Church and the lives of countless Christians. He sowed the wind with that oath and millions have reaped the whirlwind.