In Matthew 5:31-37, Jesus shares his thoughts on what, at first glance, seems to be two different issues—divorce and the taking of oaths. But as I reflect upon these seemingly discrete pieces of Jesus tradition, I come to recognize that, at their heart, they express a common concern. Followers of Jesus ought to be people of their word.
My parents set a good example for me of what it means to be a person who is honest, who is faithful, and who keeps promises. In fact, my father was so neurotic about this issue that, as a kid, he would never promise me anything. He understood that the reliability of his word was the foundation of his reputation, and he understood that there was much about the future that he could not control. He would rather not make a promise at all than make one and break it—even if it was a dire necessity.
I think that Jesus shared some of my father’s neurosis. He wanted his followers to be known by their trustworthiness. And he understood that such trustworthiness would unavoidably have social consequences.
We live in a society that does not value the keeping of promises. Sure, we all get offended when we feel that someone has lied to us or has shirked a responsibility that affects us. But how often do we counsel our family, our friends, or even ourselves not to keep a promise or fulfill an obligation if doing so would be painful or inconvenient to them/us? It is one of the casualties of structuring a society around what makes us happy.
That is not to say that we have sinned every time we do something other than what we said we would do. As the example cited in v. 32 illustrates, sometimes people break faith with us, and, as a result, we have to so something different than we had hoped and different than we had promised. At other times, we are prevented from doing what we had hoped to do by circumstances that are beyond our control.
Still, it is important to remember that these are the exceptions, not the rule. Our character should be defined by our trustworthiness. People should know that our word is our bond. We will be swimming upstream if we commit ourselves to such an endeavor, but we will not be alone. Jesus will be right there with us.