But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No,” lest you fall into judgment.
The history of Western Philosophy can be broken down into basically three phases. In Phase One, which stretches from the ancient Greeks through the late medieval philosophers, there is a general consensus that objective Truth exists, and that all reality is defined by said Truth. Phase Two, beginning roughly with Descartes, holds on to the idea of Truth, but postulates that it is measured by human reason. This is a subtle difference, but in effect it subjects truth to our mental processes, which the philosophers of Phase One rightly viewed as unreliable. Now we are in Phase Three, which coincides roughly with the end of World War II, and increasingly seeks to chip away at the idea that there is any kind of objective Truth at all.
(Before my comments section is overtaken by Philosophy students, yes, there is nuance, yes, there are outliers, and yes, I am painting with a broad brush. It’s a summary. Read on.)
If Philosophy stayed within the ivory towers of academia, it would be one thing. But alas, it does not, and in this age where communication happens at hyper-speed there is little time indeed between when a philosopher has an idea and when said idea finds its way into popular culture.
And thus, we who dwell in Phase Three find ourselves in a context where truth is the servant of narrative, where “alternative facts” abound, and where we muse about what the definition of “is” is.
And all of this makes this week’s verse all the more relevant.
First, a little exegetical housekeeping as we jump into the text. The phrase “but above all” can be a little confusing. It seems to make this verse a continuation of the one before, but the subject matter doesn’t seem to jive. It seems more like James is starting a new subject. Dr. Rob Plummer very helpfully explains that this is an idiomatic phrase often used to signal that the writer is beginning to wrap things up – kind of like when a pastor says “in conclusion”…except James really means it.
It is also helpful to note the similarities between what James says here and Jesus’s own words in Matthew 5:
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one”
So what is the big deal with taking an oath? Well…nothing…except for the purpose behind it. In Jesus’s (and James’s) day, oaths were a way to wiggle your way out of a promise. How so? Some examples:
“Hey, you didn’t do that thing you said you would do!”
“Well, I didn’t actually swear to do it, so I’m good.”
“Hey, you didn’t do the thing you swore you would do!”
“Well, I only swore on my life. If I had sworn on my mother’s life, that would have been binding. As it is, I’m good.”
In other words, people of that day were making a mockery of the truth by establishing legal loopholes. Jesus and James will have none of it. “It’s simple” they say. “Yes is yes, no is no.” Jesus says that anything else is of the Devil. James says that such legal finagling will land one in judgment.
Now let’s fast-forward to our own time. We, of course, are no strangers to legal loopholes. “I never lied…under oath!” But added to this is a whole post-modern level of deconstructing, redefining, and repurposing the truth. Taking a page from the playbook of Pontius Pilate, our generation asks “What is Truth?”, then gives a “who can tell, really” shrug and goes back to doing silly dances for TikTok. And when a society cannot be bothered with objective truth, truth becomes whatever society wants it to be.
But part of Christians living as salt and light in this world is cutting through this morass and affirming the Truth on a daily basis. We do this by proclaiming the Truth of God’s word…obviously. But we also do it by making the Truth a habit in our daily interactions. Christians should be known as people who speak the truth, and mean it.
And make no mistake, a people who deal in unequivocal “yes’s” and “no’s” will get the attention of a world determined to slither and shimmy around absolutes at any cost.
Banner Image: AI generated picture of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, “Phase One” philosophers all, joy-riding in a convertible. No evidence exists that such an event actually took place.
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