We had been teaching through the sermon on the mount and the portion on oaths had fallen to me. It was not necessarily the text I would have chosen to focus on in that busy season of our fledgling church plant. But we had committed to teach through Matthew, believing that every part is God-breathed, even the parts that felt less relevant. So I studied Matthew 5:33-37 as best I could and labored to explain it and apply it in the local language. After the meeting finished I approached *Frank and *Patti, two local new believers.
“Was everything clear? Any questions?” I asked. I wasn’t really expecting a lot of response.
Both stood with furrowed brows.
“Yes, very clear… But if this is true, then we need a whole new language,” Frank responded.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Patti chimed in, “It’s impossible to speak our language without starting every other sentence with an oath. We need to learn a whole new way to speak! We knew that following Jesus would mean change, but this is going to be really hard!”
“This was a very surprising and important part of the Bible for us to learn about. Thank you,” Frank said.
If my local friends were surprised at this part of Jesus’ teaching, I for my part was surprised by their response. Didn’t see that one coming, I thought to myself, and not for the last time. We later debriefed with our teammates about this conversation.
It was true. How could we have missed it? The local language was absolutely chock-full of oaths. Coming from a culture and language where oaths are mostly archaic, we hadn’t really noticed them, even as we ourselves learned to start our sentences with some of them, mimicking the cadence of our local friends’ speech.
By God. By the sacrifice. By the Qur’an. By my grandmother’s grave. By both of my eyes. By the top of my head. By my honor. As we reflected we realized just how hard it was to make a serious statement in the local language without prefacing it with an oath. This passage from Matthew may have been very practical after all.
We were at that point just beginning to learn that the Central Asian culture where we serve is riddled with deceit and duplicity. This is the real downside to an honor-based culture. Everyone is lying all the time to save face. This is likely where the oaths came in, trying to create a more reliable kind of statement where the hearer can be assured that the speaker isn’t just lying to save face. But it didn’t really solve the problem. Like some strange cousin to the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception, it just punted the problem up one level. How does it help you believe in Jesus’ sinlessness to claim that Mary was born sinless also? What about her parents? How does it help you believe your friend who would normally lie to you just because this time he used an oath? Wouldn’t a liar just keep lying, even if using an oath?
We began trying to purge the local oaths we had learned out of our speech and it did prove remarkably difficult. We held on to using By the Truth, feeling like we had some precedence to lean on by Jesus’ usage of Truly, truly, I say to you.
Going deeper in our understanding of the local culture helped us better understand the first-century culture Jesus was rebuking. To cultures and languages that try to maintain two levels of speech, normal and oath-backed, Jesus says, “Enough! Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” No more tolerating certain lies and trying to convince others to believe you by linking your statement to something holy or something you foolishly think you have power over. In the kingdom of God, followers of Jesus will be known for honest character and honest speech such that oaths are now no longer needed.
It may be the distant echoes of this teaching that lead Muslims to still say about the local ethnic Christians and about Westerners, “They are honest people compared to us.” Islamic teaching advocates for deceit in the cause of good. This, of course, has been like pouring gasoline on the dumpster fire of human deceitfulness. Lying and duplicity have in time become some of the deepest besetting sins of the Middle East and Central Asia. This makes me truly appreciate the local translation of Romans 12:9 – “Let love be without two-faced-ness.”
Frank and Patti were partially right. In one sense, they would need a whole new language. But not in the religious sense where some human tongue is elevated as more holy than another. No, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, or English are not superior spiritual languages, regardless of the bad precedent set by Christianity and Islam. Rather, Frank and Patti’s fallen language, not unlike their fallen bodies, was now under new ownership. Their language was to be redeemed and made part of the eternal Revelation 7:9 choir. That would mean purging some elements, like oaths, and the addition of many others, such as new forms of theology, thanksgiving, and worship.
Jesus is transforming Frank and Patti’s language from the inside-out. It will be remarkable to see the future church there speaking the same tongue, but now transformed into a mature vessel of glory. A language remade! Now that is encouraging to think about.
*Names have been changed for security