All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37.)
Oral v. Verbal
There’s a good reason oral contracts generally aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. It’s because they’re not written at all, on paper or otherwise. Then again, with voice to text software available perhaps writing orally is becoming common. One day it might be as common as writing verbally. But oral and verbal are not identical:
- Oral – of or pertaining to the mouth.
- Verbal – of or pertaining to words.
An oral contract, then, is one you say out loud and a verbal contract is one you make with words. Oral contracts and written contracts are usually made with words which means both can be verbal contracts.
“Why ‘usually’?” you might ask. Because a contract is an agreement and agreements can be made with grunts and pictograms as well as with words, and they can be made with and without writing. In fact, we come to agreements with people all the time without bothering to write it down.
“I’ll get lunch today. You can pick up the tab next time.”
Or it could be an implied contract without any words at all. Imagine two kids at the lunch table at school. One pulls out a tuna sandwich, and holds it up for her friend because she know he likes tuna. He pulls out a package of string cheese. They swap without saying a word. The contract is complete.
Some things,though, are so important we write them down. After all, when’s the last time you paid a premium on a new insurance policy without getting the policy terms in writing?
The reason we’ve developed a body of law on contracts over the millennia is that sometimes people won’t follow through on their promises. Today, both oral and written agreements can be enforced in court (although certain types of agreements are considered so important that writing is required).
Yes and No
The most famous contract in the Bible is the covenant between God and his people (“covenant” being a legal term of art from the law of contracts), delivered to Israel when God gave Moses the two tablets with the Ten Commandments on them.*
Centuries later, Jesus spoke of agreements and promises too. He didn’t write down a set of promises but rather gave a simple guideline for making agreements:
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.(Matthew 5:37.)
I don’t think Jesus was saying you can’t elaborate on what the promise or agreement is about. You should make clear what you are saying “yes” or “no” to. But when it comes to your trustworthiness, it doesn’t add anything to say “I really promise … may I be struck by lightning … on my grandmother’s grave” or anything else. If a simple yes or no won’t work, nothing you say can make up for it.
Which makes me smile a bit when I think of people in the courtroom. Prospective jurors, for example, take an oath to answer questions truthfully as part of the jury selection process. Sometimes one will start to answer an attorney’s question with the phrase, “To be honest with you …”.
I want to interject, “I hope you’re being honest. You just took an oath.” But I refrain (usually) because I know what they mean is that they are being candid, not that they were lying before but now chose to come up with an honest response to a question.
You might think the jurors’ oath is taking things to the level Jesus said was inappropriate, that having someone swear to tell the truth under penalty of perjury must be “from the evil one.”
Perhaps, but it’s important to remember that Jesus was speaking in the Sermon on the Mount to fellow Jews, people who would be familiar with the Old Testament requirements for oath taking and with all the traditions that had arisen since Moses brought the laws down from Mount Sinai. He was telling them to get back to basics, to what God commanded and not what the religious leaders had added to it.
Also, the translation of Matthew 5:37 could also be read as “anything beyond this is from evil.” With that reading, it is easy to see why taking an oath under penalty of perjury in a secular courtroom is important. We live in a fallen world and that oath is a safeguard against the evil of lying on the witness stand.
Words and actions both can benefit from remembering that. People count on you so give them something to count on. Let your yes be yes and your no be no.
That is not from evil but from the lips of God himself, Jesus.
*Why two tablets? It’s not because the commandments wouldn’t fit on one. Rather, back then just as now usually a contract was written out twice so that each side kept a copy. Moses carried both sets, one he carried for Israel and the other for God as his representative to the people.