“Be Faithful to your Vows (Deut 23,22-24)”

by John Wijngaards, LAWS FOR LIFE Series in the New Leader, 29 July 1973; in Telugu Bharata Mithram, 26 October 1975

If you have made a vow to Yahweh, you must not delay fulfilling it. Otherwise, be sure that Yahweh, your God, will require an account for it and will count it a sin. If you had refrained from making a vow there would be no sin for you. Whatever passes your lips, you should carefully do. The vow that you have freely made with your own mouth to Yahweh, your God, must be fulfilled.” (Deuteronomy 23, 22-24)

When the Jews were praying for a special favour, they often attached a vow to it. promising to do certain thing for God if he would grant them the favour. In this way Jacob promised to give a tenth of hia income if he would return home in good health (Gen. 28. 20·22). Absalom promised to bring a special sacrifice if he were to be recalled to Jerusalem (II Sam. 15,8). Hannah promised to give her son for temple service (I Sam 1.11). In this way the Jews made vows intending to fulfil them when they would receive the special blessing they had asked for.

Relaxing the Obligation?

Often people would afterwards find it hard to live up to the vow they had made. The Old Testament mentions cases (such as the one in Num, 30. 1-15) from which we learn tbat priests could, in special circumstances, relieve the faithful of vows which they were later unable to keep. This is natural enough. It is possible that people, however good their intentions be initially, cannot later fulfil the obligations which they have taken upon themselves. In such cases the vow does not hold good. An implicit condition in every vow is the presupposition that the votary should be able to execute what he promises. Even in our own days, Church authority sometimes relaxes vows and promises which people have made on this same ground.

On the othes hand, one should not treat the promises made to God in a light fashion. That is precisely the meaning of the law we are considering today. The law is the official guideline which determines that generally speaking one has the obligation of fulfilling the vow, and fulfilling it without delay. Otherwise it will be reckoned as a sin. The law points out that it is a wrong practice first light-heartedly to make vows and later on to seek for their relaxation. It is important that one should from the start realize the full extent of the promise made, and refrain from making it if it seems too difficult, rather than having to ask for a dispensation later on.

VOWS in our own times

The most important examples of vows in our own times are those made by priests and religious. The application of the law to their case is obvious. Of course, there may be persons who rightly should be relieved from the fulfilment of their vows if in later life it is found that for whatever reasons if may be, they cannot live up to them as originally intended, The psychological tensions of our own age provide special reasons why ecclesiastical authority is more ready to grant dispensations in this matter than it was in former times.

On the other hand, also for today the solution indicated in the Sacred text remains valid. More than before priests and religious should be made to consider their decision carefully before they take the final step that binds them to God for the rest of their lives. Seminarians and novices should rather be discouraged from continuing than risking a crisis in their future lives. In some places the benefit of the doubt has always been put on the side of having a vocation. Perhaps, in line with what the law prescribes, the benefle of the doubt should be put on the side of not making vows which one may not be able to fulfil. The clear teaching seems to be: Refrain from making a vow unless you are absolutely sure you will be able to keep it. Then, whatever has passed your lips should be fufllled because “you have freely made the vow with your own mouth”.