I have always liked the book of Matthew. It is one of the synoptic Gospels, sharing similarities with both Mark and Luke, yet with some differences. Matthew and Luke both seem to have copied bits of Mark but put in different emphases and different viewpoints. Matthew was written for the Jewish people, while Luke was written for the Greeks.
Much of the reading today is about swearing vows, especially vows to God. Today we hear a lot of swearing but it’s not necessarily religious vows or even polite words or phrases. Matthew looks back to ancient history and the instructions to carry out any vows that they made to God, not to make the vow and then forget about it. Matthew also talks about swearing upon one’s own head because there’s nothing about our physical selves that we can really do a whole lot about. Of course, now we’ve got Clairol and other products that will change white hair to black and black hair to white and all the shades of red and brown in between. They had some of that stuff back in Jesus’s time since Egyptians had used it when Israel was in exile in Egypt. But still is difficult to change the color of one hair and without aid of cosmetics. Matthew’s point attests to the impossibility of changing without going to great length and great difficulty, and even then, it’s usually not 100% successful.
But the part that really grabbed my attention was the very last verse, “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no.’ ” I find it very interesting that it is an instruction to be definite in one’s answer. Since this was a lesson from Jesus, it makes it even more interesting.
It’s apparent that Jesus neither left out a word or ever intended for to be there, and it’s a word we often hear in context of a yes or no answer. It’s a simple little word that can change the entire structure of the answer.
In this passage, Jesus never inserted the word “but”. The man with the dead father wanted to join Jesus yet he fell even more deeply into the mire when he said, “Yes, but let me go bury my father first.” That little word “but” changed the whole thing. The man was serious in wanting to follow Jesus, although he felt he had a prior commitment that had to be taken care of first, making following Jesus of secondary importance.
Politicians are great about throwing in silent “but” words along with their yesses or their nos. They are fond of saying, “Yes, we will do this for you, but we will do more for this group over here.” They will say, “No, we will not raise taxes or make these other changes,” but just listen for a while. You’ll find there is a real or implied “but” somewhere down the road.
Jesus never intended for there to be a “but” when a person makes a vow to do something or refrain from doing something. Statements were unequivocal. Love your neighbor as yourself, not love your neighbor but not if they are _____ and then fill in the blank with whatever the current target is. Jesus never said that if you see a person without a coat, to give them yours–that is, unless it’s expensive, super high quality, or necessary to indicate the status quo of the owner.
Jesus used the word, but in the context of “rather.” One of the phrases he often used was, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” He was redefining words, beliefs, and practices that had been in place for centuries. Jesus presented those ancient words and practices to the people who already understood them in one way, and suddenly turned it around to be something different. He was teaching them a new way, built on the old.
There are times when we can unequivocally say yes or no; we do it by the way we vote, the way we acquire goods and services, saying yes to this one but no to that one based on economics or political position or the like. We’ve gotten so used to “Yes, but…” or “No, but…” We wait to hear that little word because we are so used to hearing it and we know it’s going to happen in there somewhere.
Jesus attributed the things like the “but” to something that came from the evil one. It’s easy to understand because what it is becomes an entry for the shaitan to win others to the dark side, as it were. He is all too interested in attempting to thwart God by corrupting God’s children, and, unfortunately, a number of them seem to be all too willing, even as they insist they are trying to do God’s will and have no truck with evil. You can tell the ones that say yes to God because they do God’s will as they were taught by Jesus.
The next time you watch a crime show or courthouse drama, listen to the oath that each witness must give, ending with “…So help me God.” That’s the end of the vow. If you notice, there is no “Unless I might incriminate myself,” or “But I can’t tell them about A or B.” Listen to that and see how much different it sounds when you mentally add those things on, because there are a lot of those implications in a courtroom. The oath may end with “… So help me God,” but there’s often more that could be said.
This week, I’m going to try to work so that my yes is yes, my no is no. I need to learn to see where a gray area is truly justified, and where the answer must be solid and substantive.
Image D2 yes no.jpg, found at Wikimedia Commons. Author: Wintermute115.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and semi-retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.