My friends and I had all sorts of silly conversations when we were kids. Like boys do, we’d hold “Dare” contests to prove who was the bravest or toughest (or, in truth, who had the least sense).
“I dare you to climb that tree.”
“I’ll climb it, but only if you give me something.”
“If you climb it all the way to that top skinny branch, I’ll give you my new baseball.”
And then there was usually something like this tacked onto the end:
“Okay, I promise I’ll give you my new baseball.”
“Say it while I can see your fingers” (to make sure they weren’t crossed).
“Okay,” (fingers showing), “I promise I’ll give you my new baseball if you climb all the way to the skinny branch at the top.”
Everything having been properly verbalized and certified, the dared one would begin shimmying up the tree. In our way of thinking, the owner of the new baseball had made a valid oath. Anybody who violated a promise made with no fingers crossed was considered untrustworthy.
We didn’t know it at the time, but we were little Pharisees. Our categories of oaths based on words said, hearts crossed, fingers uncrossed, stacks of Bibles, and so on, were only slightly less mature than the system Jesus responded to here:
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil (Matthew 5:33-37).
Judaism had an elaborate hierarchy of laws that made oaths more or less binding. Swearing by heaven or earth, for example, was less binding than swearing by God.
Jesus had no patience for the whole system, because integrity was at stake. A believer’s obligation to keep his word ought not be based on how carefully he worded his promise—leaving himself a loophole or two in case it became difficult for him to follow through.
Like he always did, Jesus went right to the crux: Just be honest. Keep your word. Say “yes” or “no” and mean it.
There’s a lesson here for tree-climbing little boys and hand-shaking adults. It’s true in the big things, of course—signing contracts and closing business deals—but it also applies to the little stuff. When we tell a child that we’re coming to his game at 5:00, we ought to do everything we can to get there. If we tell a two-year-old that a certain behavior receives specific consequences, those consequences ought to follow. Kids shouldn’t wonder if their parents will do what they say.
When this principle guides our lives, we’ll get a reputation at home or work or wherever: “If she says she’ll do it, she’ll do it,” people will say. “I know one thing—he’ll always tell you the truth.”
Yes or no on the lips of a Christian always means exactly that, fingers crossed or not.