Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Say yes and mean yes. Say no and mean no. What could be easier? Not much. Yet doing so seems to challenge most of us at some fundamental level, at some deeply seated place where humility rarely goes, where vanity rules in all it ugliness. Jesus is not asking his students to avoid cussing. He’s not asking them to swear on something a little less holy, a little less spiritual. He is teaching them not to swear oaths at all because their Yes must mean Yes and their No must mean No. To swear an oath as a witness to the value of one’s word is itself an admission that one’s word is worthless. There is nothing that an oath can add to one’s word that makes that word more believable, more valuable, any truer. Swearing by heaven, earth, the throne of God, the city of the ancestors, your mama’s grave, your daddy’s favorite whiskey, none of these can change a false word from a false heart into a true word from a holy heart. Saying Yes and meaning Yes, saying No and meaning No is a matter of humility, of knowing and loving your most basic relationship to God: total dependence, complete contingency.
Not “taking the Lord’s name in vain” is an old, old prohibition that reaches all the way back to Moses on the mountain and the stone tablets he brought down to the valley. At the top of the list of Thou-Shalt-Not’s is the Lord’s commandment ordering us not to use His name frivolously, vainly, not to invoke lightly His witness in our favor. Like most of the Top Ten, this commandment sets up a relationship between the human and the divine, a means of being in touch with God that reminds us that we are made beings—limited, contingent, and therefore completely dependent on He Who Is. Jesus shows his friends what it means for a Law to be fulfilled and teaches them what it means to be a creature of the Creator. Knowing one’s dependence is not meant to be humiliating but rather humbling, not at all fearful but rather awe-inspiring! Surely it is better for us to be dependent creatures of a loving Creator than independent monsters of an accidental cosmos.
To be contingent creatures of a loving Creator means that we find ourselves at once imperfect in His glory but gifted with everything we need to become perfect with His glory. The first vital step we must take is to recognize the truth of our Being-Here, that is, we must come to understand our purpose in light of our existence, the fact that we exist at all. Jesus teaches his disciples that heaven, earth,
Let your Yes mean Yes and your No mean No: anything less betrays your created purpose, poisons the way to your gifted end.