The following is another excerpt from chapter four of Ten Essential Words.
The final qualifier to all this swearing that Jesus addressed reads: “And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.” Aside from invoking religious language to legitimize their oaths, the other thing people were temped to do was swear on their head, in other words on their own life or their very being. In this sense, people would have been using their own powers and abilities to guarantee their oaths, almost the opposite of calling upon God. But Jesus also pointed out the futility of appealing to our own power, “You cannot make even one hair white or black.” Using all of our will power, can we change the color of our hair? (Products don’t count, by the way.) Maybe other people can turn our hair grey, but it is not in our power. Can we grit our teeth and stop a receding hairline? Can we clench our fists and produce curls – an insta-perm? In reality, we have little power over the shape and size of our own body. Sure, we can eat healthy and exercise, but sheer mental determination alone will not get us far.
Jesus is pointing out just how little power we have to control much of anything. The Greek words for swearing and oath make explicit the consequence of breaking the oath by calling down divine judgment on the oath breaker. Jesus reminds us that we are not the ones calling the shots. In what was becoming the ultimate misuse of God’s name, people were presuming to call down God’s judgment on whomever they felt was not living up to their end of the bargain. If we lack the ability to change our own hair color, then summoning God’s judgment is certainly out of our control. We cannot use religious language as some kind of magic phrase that makes God at our beck and call. Read this same passage in The Message: “You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true.” Let’s not fool ourselves – God is the one in control.
So what are we left with? “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ “, Jesus tells us. What a radical concept! No fancy, religious language; no one-upsmanship; no invoking the wrath of God. “Just be a person of your word”, Jesus says. This actually brings us full circle to the original idea of an oath in the Old Testament – no written contract was needed, no elaborate language used. A meal would be shared, and the two parties were considered family from that point on. Your word was your word, and that should suffice. And in the kingdom of God, that is the way it should be as well. Our daily conversation should be considered as sacred as an oath, so there was no need to distinguish between the two any longer. If we say we are going to do something, then that should be good as a contract.