Didn’t Jesus Understand Hair Dye?

Everyone seems to agree that Jesus Christ’s most sublime, wonderful teaching is found in the Sermon on the Mount. But the part about not swearing oaths does not get much attention. According to Matthew 5, Jesus said, “Do not even swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.” Well, you might politely murmur, “Jesus is quite wrong here. I do exactly that every month, as my hair dresser (and only my hair dresser) knows.”  And you wouldn’t admit it, but you might start thinking Jesus is a little dated in His teaching. We’ve moved on, of course.


You might think this, I say, until you realize one simple thing: hair dye was known and used in the ancient world. In fact, early patristic interpreters took this verse to justify saying that women should not dye their hair. Let me quote the great Tertullian from the 2nd century (On the Apparel of Women, II.6):


I see some women turn the color of their hair with saffron. They are ashamed even of their own nation, ashamed that their procreation did not assign them to Germany or Gaul: thus as it is, they transfer their hair thither.


[After some talk about how the dye harms the scalp, he goes on:] But, however, God says, “Which of you can make a white hair black or out of a black a white?” [Reference to Matthew 5:36] And so they refute the Lord.


While we may question whether Tertullian should forbid dying hair on the basis of this verse, I hope this helps you to wonder: If Jesus was quite aware of hair dye, why he would make this easily contradicted statement. I hope you will think further because, as is so often the case with Jesus, the more one looks at Him, the more one can see.


Dying the hair actually turns out to be a perfect illustration of Christ’s teaching, as your hairdresser also knows…and loves. He knows, once you start, you’ll be back for more dye treatment, because if you don’t, your roots start to show. And, if you are trying to make white hairs black, nothing is more embarrassing than that, right? Because then people will not only know that your hair isn’t really that color, they’ll also know that you have been trying to change yourself, maybe for some not so flattering reason. Hair growth shows that, much as you try, you still have a limitation on changes.


This is Jesus’ point. You do not have control over many things (and so you have no right to swear by them), including certain features in how he has made you or what age you are. It is really profound—God has given you, in His love for you, certain strengths and limitations, which glorify Him as you live trusting in Him. You cannot change whom God made you to be, no matter what the current technology or drug or surgery promises.


You might do well to change some things that you can, like fixing your teeth, or even hair color for a time. But you cannot stop yourself from getting old, you cannot really be a permanent blonde, and you may not have the stature of a movie star.


…And you may not change your gender. You may cross-dress, take hormones and sign a new name. You may even have a penectomy or phalloplasty (but please, please, please, dear reader, find out from reputable sources what happens to your body and soul long-term when you undergo these irreversible surgeries–let the reader understand!). As I say, you can do all these things, but you cannot change your self. You will still be the gender God has made you, even if you modify the body He gave you. He gave you your body as a gift to tell you about yourself.


Can you glory in the limitations God has given you?

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