Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
There are many echoes in this letter of teachings that Jesus gave. This verse is one of them. Its substance matches pretty well the material in Matthew 5:33-37. Yet the wording here is not the same as in Matthew. So perhaps James got to know Jesus’ teaching early, long before anyone gathered it into written Gospels. The wording in his letter comes from memory and regular use, rather than from Matthew’s written version. That would fit, of course, with the tradition that the James of this letter was the Lord’s brother.
At first glance this verse stands alone in James’ letter, without close links to the verses before and after. However, there is some continuity to be found, at least with verses 7-11. Those verses speak of patience and resilience in difficult days. Mutual support is part of that: ‘do not grumble against one another’ (5:9).
Mutual support requires trust too, and honesty – telling the truth as a matter of habit. Christians should not need to use oaths, to emphasise that some of our speech is especially truthful. We should be the kind of people whose word others can depend on, whose speech is consistently honest and fair. Trying to underline our truthfulness – in God’s name, or with any other oath – ought not to be necessary.
What, then, about court cases? Would we take an oath there, with our hand on the Bible? I have done so, and I think I would do so again. This seems to help others in the room to take our testimony seriously. But if we need this kind of solemn warning for ourselves – if we cannot trust ourselves to be honest without it – perhaps we need to search our hearts and change our habits.
Jesus, you are the truth of God. May your life shape our living. Keep us from deceiving others and from deceiving ourselves. May there be truth in our words and our deeds. May your presence be known in and through us, in our speech, our relationships and our character. Amen.
The Rev’d John Proctor, retired minister and member of Downing Place URC, Cambridge