In today’s world, people do not swear by anything. Our words are not taken at their face value any more. Words have been replaced by contracts, signatures, seals and notary certificates. Or receipts at the very least… An oral promise has long since ceased to carry any value or meaning.
Things were different in Gospel times, however, when someone’s word or an oath was not only a guarantee, but also a potential target for a fraudulent act.
There are two passages in the Gospel that speak about the same thing, making them equally incomprehensible to many modern readers. One is about swearing by the gold of the temple (Matthew 23 16-22); the other refers to another oath, i. e. “Corban”, a promise to donate something (particularly, in this case, the assets that one’s parents might need) to the temple (Mark 7: 9-13).
In both cases, Jesus angrily denounces the Pharisees for these oaths, leading us to an obvious conclusion that they were inappropriate. However, today it is difficult for us to understand why ideas as strange as swearing by the temple’s gold, or dooming one’s parents to poverty by saying “Corban” would occur to somebody in those days. Meanwhile, both oaths were part of everyday monetary relations in Israel of that time and drew no protest among its residents.
Here is what St Theophylact of Ohrid writes on the subject:
“… According to the Pharisees’ teachings, whoever swore an oath by a golden utensil or a sacrificial calf or a sheep, and then broke the oath, he was obliged to pay the cost of what he had sworn by. They preferred the sacrifice to the altar because of the benefit received from the sacrifices. Swearing by the temple itself, however, did not hold a person to his oath. Those who broke it could not offer anything equal to the temple, and therefore were freed from their oath. So because of their greed, the Pharisees considered the oath by the temple less significant.”
The situation with the “Corban” looks just as unattractive. The word literally means a gift to God or a sacrifice. This was also the name of the actual storage in the Temple, where donations were deposited. Anything that was declared to be such a gift was removed from common use as “belonging to God”. If a person announced that part of his money or estate was “Corban”, it could no longer be used in any other way.
Promising something to God and honestly keeping that promise sounds like a good idea. Dictum – factum; so said so done… But everything wasn’t as simple as it looks. Jewish moneylenders, for example, used this custom to collect debts. If the debtor was unable or unwilling to return the borrowed money, the creditors declared his debt a “Corban”, which they promised to offer to God upon return.
That made the debt sacred “overnight” and put the debtor in a position where he had to go deeper in debt and return the money, at any cost, since being a blasphemer in ancient Israel was simply life-threatening.
Guess what the creditors did after that. Instead of taking the returned money into the temple treasury, they calmly went to the lawyers who had the right to revoke the publicly given oath. There they remorselessly “repented” of their promise and kept the money left after paying the Corban-cancelling tariff for themselves.
Such a crafty oath looked even more disgusting when used by adult children to deprive their parents of their livelihood.
We could end this short story here with some moralist conclusion condemning the Pharisees for inventing such a cunning “offshore”. And yet, perhaps, it would be more correct to say this:
In the ancient world, the word had a very high price. The legalists and Pharisees once turned it into a means of profiteering and religious fraud.
In today’s world, words mean very little, if anything. Today’s grown children can still leave their parents to the mercy of fate without any oaths.
Addressing the religious leaders of that time, Jesus said: Woe to you, blind leaders … you have eliminated the commandment of God by your tradition.
What He would say today, upon seeing our daily life, we can only guess.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds