How Many Truths Are There?
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [John 8:32]
“The LORD detests lying lips,
but he delights in men who are truthful.”[Proverbs 12-22]
“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” [Mark Twain, Notebook, 1984]
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. [John 18:38]
Lester, a man who worked for me, was lying about the hours he logged on the job. I trusted him to provide me each week with a record of his hours helping my wife with her barn chores. This meant feeding horses, mucking stalls, shoveling shavings, the things one needs to do to keep the animals in good condition.
Lester needed the job, and we needed him. A teenage automobile accident left him with a plate in his head, and he was unable to work on a steady craft job because of the disability. But he was wonderful with the animals. He was a good father to three girls, and worried about his wife with high blood pressure and other ailments. She worked as a pay clerk in a local business.
They lived in a crowded trailer about fifteen miles from town. We had become friends over the months. My wife and I had even taken in the oldest girl, now fourteen, into our home, enrolled her in a private school where our kindergartner son went, and my wife had showered her with love and taken her shopping for much needed clothes, just like our oldest two daughters had been raised. That didn’t work out, for a lot of reasons. But the point was that we truly liked Lester and his family.
Lester loved to talk. I did a lot of listening. I had learned that being a practicing Christian means, among other things, guarding your tongue. That sometimes leaves you with plenty of time to think and ponder, as you listened to other folks. Now he was lying to me.
“Are you being honest with me Lester?” I asked each Friday as he handed me the slip with his hours and I wrote a check.
“Shore am Larry,” he’d say, shuffling a bit, not really looking me in the eye, but not avoiding me either. “Takes a lot of time cleaning tack, and all,” he’d say.
“Ok,” I responded, “‘cause we have to be honest with each other Lester. I can’t work with people who are dishonest.”
Who was I kidding? I thought. I’ve been a teacher all my life–mostly in college–and I’ve had young adults BOLDLY lie with great conviction. Merchants have occasionally swindled me, my own children had offered up their own repertoire of “little white lies” as they grew up, and, in sum, I live in this world, not the other. The President of the United States was caught in a monumental whopper in 1998 that resulted in his impeachment. EVERYONE has lied at one time or another.
But, listen to the voice of God in scripture. We are NOT of this world, only in it. This means we don’t come to terms with the ways of the world. We just do not conform to them. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” [Romans 12:2] the apostle Paul wrote.
We are called to speak the truth and recognize the truth by our faith. What happens when we are confronted with lies? Does this sound like some sort of word gymnastics?; or as folks are fond of saying, “ah, it’s just the semantics.”
Let’s get into this a bit more, for we are in on an important search: how are we Christians expected to behave in the world? Lester’s behavior pushed the issue right into my face. It happens everyday to all of us. We are faced with lies. We sometimes don’t speak the truth.
What does Scripture say? “know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” But, you may say quite correctly, this refers to the truth of God, a spiritual truth, to a belief in the truth of the existence of Jesus Christ. What has this to do with ordinary deception, fabrication, humanitarian lies, and other devices we use to mask the truth and make life easier? The connection is in the repeated Scriptural admonitions not to LIE. We are not only not to lie, but to speak the truth. They are linked absolutely. If we do not lie, then we speak the truth.
Furthermore, the “higher” truth, the one that asks us to accept the central truth of our faith, is linked just as absolutely with “lower” truth, the one Lester was dealing out to me. Truth, no matter whether higher or lower, whether spiritual or natural, is absolute.
Our lives intersect. We are natural beings, and we are spiritual beings. We are asked to tell the truth and to condemn lies, no matter how big or small, the whoppers and the little white lies. It is not an easy road. The prophet Jeremiah was constantly in trouble (not speak of incarcerated and beaten occasionally) for speaking the truth. No one in power wanted to hear the truth. The Lord spoke to Jeremiah and told him to tell the rulers of Judah that their iniquities were going to be punished by God if they did not reform.
“So what’s going to happen, eh Jeremiah?” they taunted him.
Jeremiah told them that the Lord said that the Babylonians, led by their King, Nebuchadnezzar. would make terrible war on the Hebrews, capture and raze their capital Jerusalem, and drag the people off of to captivity in Babylon. It was not a pretty picture that Jeremiah painted in words. Nobody wanted to hear them. Heck, even Jeremiah didn’t want to preach to them! He was a reluctant prophet, but he heard the word of God, and he could not resist the truth.
Okay, you say. That’s a very nice story of the old prophet Jeremiah calling down the wrath and destruction of God on the stiff-necked Hebrews. God hasn’t spoken to me so directly recently. I am not a prophet, not a preacher, not an evangelist, not a priest. I am a Christian looking for the right way to live. Now, how do I deal with the Lesters of the world?
I had to confront him.
A well worn verse kept surfacing in my mind. “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” The old King James version of the Bible, resonating with the patterns of speech in Shakespeare’s time, is dear to some, but I like the more modern translations.
So, later, I looked it up in my New International Version of the bible: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged.” I read further. This often happens when I look for a verse. I find just as much before and following the verse. “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
This was getting harder and harder. Lester was not telling the truth. Was it up to me to overlook this behavior and forgive Lester? Later on, in Chapter Seven, we face the question “The Super Christian; Or, How Can We Mere Mortals Be Expected to Live Up To Jesus’s Impossibly High Standards,” especially as given to us in the Sermon on the Mount.
Still, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” kind of echoed in my mind. The Lord will take care of this, one side of me said. But how? How? The Lord expects you to be bold in your faith. You encounter good and evil, truth and deception on a daily basis. Are you to close your eyes to evil and deception while only acknowledging good and truth? No. Firmly no.
Remember the story of Ananias in Acts 5 when he is confronted by Peter? Let me recall it for you. With his wife Sapphira, Ananias had sold a piece of property. They acted as if they had given ALL the proceeds to the disciples, but, in fact, had secretly kept back a portion. What happened to Ananias? It wasn’t pretty.
Peter confronted him.
“Ananias,” Peter said. “how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”
And, then, as Luke recalled it for us so vividly, “when Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Sapphira, his wife, returned about three hours later.
Peter asked her, “Tell me, is the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes” Sapphira replied, thinking perhaps “who is this Peter to question me?”
Peter then said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband
In perhaps the understatement of this story, Luke recorded that “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
Lord, I didn’t want Lester struck dead!
I did, however, want the truth. And I did want him to face the consequences. Making it more difficult for me was his claim to be a Christian. Holy cow. A fellow Christian lying to me! So, I was setting myself up to be judge, jury, and executioner.
Careful I thought. YOU do what is called for. Establish the truth. Then leave the consequences to the Lord. And if you’re not sure this will happen, don’t worry. The Lord will help you out, just as Jesus told his disciplines when they wondered [quote from Scripture where Jesus tells them the Holy Spirit will fill them with everything they need to know and say].
So, now I prepared for the confrontation. I rehearsed a few scenarios, and then put it aside. Or, more exactly, I laid it in the hands of the Lord.
“You will be there for me, as you always are Lord,” I thought, conversing silently as I sometimes did with my redeemer AND FRIEND. And of course the Lord came to the rescue. But before I tell you how, let’s look for the truth.
One early Sunday morning I was reading in what is called the “wisdom literature” of the Bible. After many Sundays over the course of a long winter, I had just finished the long Book of Psalms and started the Book of Proverbs. If you’re ever stuck for the truth, dip into the Book of Proverbs. It is filled with wisdom which is not simply knowledge, but applying knowledge. A knowledgeable man, educated in Scripture, will learn to know right from wrong, truth from mendacity, God’s way from the wrong way. Yet we read on that mere knowledge is insufficient. What is demanded is the commitment and the act of doing right. Knowing or learning what is right is knowledge. Doing right is the result of wisdom.
We are not born with knowledge or wisdom. We are however endowed with a “natural” sense of right and wrong imparted to us by God. All human beings are. But this is only a foundation. We are reared by our mothers and fathers to do what is right and eschew what is wrong. If mothers and fathers fail in this obligation, we run into deep trouble, as individuals, as families, as a Christian culture. I am convinced that the source of many of our culture’s problems is traceable to not knowing-in the largest sense–how to be wise.
Wisdom is not the propriety of some white bearded sages inhabiting mountaintops. They sit there quietly contemplating the universe. Occasionally–like in the cartoons–an aspiring apprentice makes the long trek up the rugged mountain, and the sage dispenses a trickle of wisdom. Nor is true wisdom only to be had by retiring from the world to pray and meditate and contemplate God. Actually, recluses and hermits were very much in vogue in the early Christian church, leading eventually to the rise of monks and friars who followed special vocations devoted to their search for the essence of Christianity, and how to apply it.
But we are–most of us anyway–neither recluses, nor hermits, sages, or bearded wise men. We want to know how to discern truth from falsehood, and, more important, how to act on this knowledge. What do we do when our child says,
“Oh, sure dad, I chewed the cold medicine. Look,” he points into his mouth, “all gone!” And, of course, you know he dumped it into the trash can.
Or, raise the stakes a bit, what should you think when the President of the United States lies with great conviction before a Grand Jury?
Let me suggest a cardinal rule to begin with: DO NOT run to lawyers for the truth! At least not in this day and age. Run, instead, to the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Psalms for starters.
If for some reason you think there may be some “wiggle” room in these passages, read on. By “wiggle” room I mean some latitude in interpretation. Perhaps not as egregious as President Clinton’s by now famous, “it depends on what you mean by the word ‘is’,” but space to separate little white lies from whoppers, helpful lies from destructive lies, innocent lies from mean-spirited lies for example.
There are six things the LORD hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
a false witness who pours out lies
and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers. [Proverbs 6:16-19]
The above seems pretty clear to me. As I prepared to write this chapter, I returned to Proverbs. And I almost despaired; not for lack of inspiration in that great book of Wisdom, but because I wondered what could I add to it? It is filled with wisdom on everything from the most ordinary–how to select a mate–to the dangers of conceit, jealousy, and pride. But, for the purposes of this chapter–remember, we are seeking the truth–we can do no better than listen and apply Proverbs. In this “wisdom” literature you will find not only how to deal with Lester and your children (the examples I used of liars), but how to avoid the pitfalls yourself. Or, to put it more plainly as we seek the Christian way of life, how to make truth central to your walk as a Christian.
At the core of Proverbs’ teaching on truth and untruth is the tongue. Yes, the lowly tongue. Lying, or, conversely, speaking the truth, you may be arguing in your mind, is something that comes from the heart; it is a spiritual matter, one of conscience, and good morality, or upbringing, or training, or whatever can be blamed or attributed to your saying the truth, or saying a lie. But Proverbs goes straight to the CORE of the issue. We tell the truth, or we lie, with our tongue, our lips, our mouths. In other words, the PHYSICAL act of speaking is itself endowed with power.
Just out of curiosity, I counted the references to the word “truth” and “tongue” in Proverbs. Tongues won out by a count of twenty-two to two! The tongue is both an instrument of truth and life, and of lies and death. Or, as Proverbs puts it more felicitously, more poetically, even more briefly!
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life,
but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.[15:4]
As an instrument of life, when it delivers the truth, we are fulfilled, satisfied, and synchronized with our faith.
PR 16:13 Kings take pleasure in honest lips;
they value a man who speaks the truth.
And, expanding on the truth that comes from our lips, Proverbs delivers other “truths” about the effects of what we say.
From the fruit of his mouth a man’s stomach is filled;
with the harvest from his lips he is satisfied.[18:20]
The tongue has the power of life and death,
and those who love it will eat its fruit. [18:20-21]
PR 16:23 A wise man’s heart guides his mouth,
and his lips promote instruction
PR 16:24 Pleasant words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.
PR 17:27 A man of knowledge uses words with restraint,
and a man of understanding is even-tempered
PR 12:25 An anxious heart weighs a man down,
but a kind word cheers him up.
So, it is not only truth that should flow out from our hearts through our lips and tongues, but pleasant, even-tempered words, used with restraint for our lips promote instruction and goodwill.
Conversely, the opposite of speaking the truth, which brings its reward of life and peace, is the mouth that speaks lies, deceits, and hates. Again, a reading of some verses from Proverbs brings this message to the fore with crystal clear clarity.
The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked. [10:11] P
.PR 15:28 The heart of the righteous weighs its answers,
but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.
PR 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger
PR 11:9 With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbor,
PR 12:18 Reckless words pierce like a sword,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing
. PR 16:27 A scoundrel plots evil,
and his speech is like a scorching fire.
PR 16:28 A perverse man stirs up dissension,
and a gossip separates close friends.
Let’s briefly summarize here what Proverbs is telling us about tongues (although not of “speaking in tongues;” that’s another matter; see Chapter Five “Who is this Holy Ghost Fellow?) and speaking. We think of words as just so many noises that come from our mouths, reminding us of the old children’s ditty, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Wrong, wrong, wrong! Proverbs does not dance around this issue. The very words we speak carry power.
Proverbs is a wonderful book, filled with practical advice on how to live. We shall return to it in other chapters, but before we leave it for the moment, let’s choose one verse to summarize its wisdom on the relationship between what issues from our mouths, or “confess,” a verb that theologians find congenial and concise, and what happens to us as a consequence.
From the fruit of his lips a man is filled with good things
as surely as the work of his hands rewards him. [12:14]
These verses from Proverbs are just for starters since the lessons in the New Testament are filled with similar admonitions and teachings on truth. Again, by way of reminder, we are considering truth here as it is commonly understood in what theologians, pastors, ministers, etc. like to call the “natural” world. The natural world is the one we live in, distinguished from the “supernatural” world which lies beyond our “natural” senses, of sight, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling for example. In the examples we have considered so far, Lester and our son did not speak the truth “in the natural.” If they were to have denied the existence of Jesus Christ, then we move to another level of truth, one we considered in Chapter One, “Did Jesus Really Live? Did We Invent God, or Did God Invent Us?”
As we consider what the New Testament has to say on truth, we discover that Jesus was fond of prefacing his teaching with the words “I tell you the truth.” The examples abound:
“I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” MT 19:23
LK 4:24 “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.
The overwhelming examples of truth in the New Testament, however, have to do with what we have called the “higher” meaning of truth, or the truth of God’s love and redemptive work in our life as revealed by the presence of Jesus Christ.
2521 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
47 I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. 48 I am the bread of life.
18 He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.
And, of course, perhaps the greatest summary of the truth of God:
32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
We shall return to this higher truth in later chapters. In fact, we really never abandon the subject, for everything we do and say as Christians in our everyday life ultimately is founded on our belief in the truth of Jesus Christ. But, let’s step down the ladder of truth a few wrungs, to truth on the level of our daily existence.
One of the certainties of truth is that it can sometimes hurt, and hurt deeply. This is because we have denied it or attempted to ignore it. Perhaps the most poignant moment of truthful confrontation in the entire New Testament is when Peter demands to follow Jesus upon his arrest.
N 13:37 Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
JN 13:38 Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!
Peter is crushed by this apparent lack of confidence on the part of his Lord and Master. When the truth becomes apparent, Peter’s shame is deep and thorough. He has betrayed his Lord. But, while that truth wounded his heart, he learned after the Resurrection that he was forgiven, and, indeed, chosen by Jesus to lead the church. This too was truth, and from the abysmal vault of darkness into which Peter plunged, he was lifted up into the light.
On a more prosaic plane–the one we all deal with on a daily basis–, Pontius Pilate had to determine the truth of the Jews accusations against Jesus who was hauled before the Roman Governor for judgement. Jesus was accused of profaning the Jewish faith by claiming he was the son of God. This was sacrilege. Pilate queried the accusers. They were a contentious lot, these chief priests and elders of the Jewish nation, a people with a touchy pride, on the constant edge of revolt against Roman rule.
As the scene unfolds, there is perhaps no greater, more dramatic moment in the entire history of humankind in the search for truth.
As Pilate questioned Jesus, he determined that there was little, if indeed nothing, in Jesus’s actions to warrant punishment under Roman law.
The accusers clamored more loudly for justice. This Jesus not only has stirred the people all over Judea and Galilee, but he claims to be “king of the Jews!” Like any good group of lawyers, they were appealing to the sensibilities of the judge and jury. If Jesus was indeed causing tumult and raising passions among the people, AND claiming to be “king of the Jews,” then surely he was guilty of sedition against the Roman state. There was only ONE emperor and any call to an alternate king was treason.
Pilate listened, then turned to Jesus again.
Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.
“See! See!” clamored the priests, elders, and people.
But Pilate still could find no wisp of sedition or treason in Jesus’s acts. This was an internal affair among the Jews. They were quarrelling about matters of their religion which did not violate Roman authority or law.
“I find no basis for a charge against this man,” Pilate told them.
A great buzz and clamoring rose from the crowd. “He IS guilty. His movement is spreading like a plague from Galilee through all of Judea. It has even infected Jerusalem!” Someone exclaimed, as if to cinch the argument before the Roman judge, “why He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar!” The lies flowed easily and rapidly as the heat of the moment grew intense.
Pilate slumped back into his seat, thinking perhaps on why he had ever accepted the governorship of Palestine. It had definitely been a promotion on the hierarchy of office within the vast Roman Empire, but there was no more troublesome spot in all the Empire. Even the blood-curdling barbarians of Germania and Britania were easier to handle than these murdering Jews!
“Galilee” did they say? thought Pilate. Did Jesus come from Galilee? That’s it, I’ll send this Jesus to Herod, the ruler of Galilee. Herod was in Jerusalem celebrating the holy days. Let Herod deal with him.
Herod was curious. He had heard about this Jesus of Nazareth. He performed miracles. Perhaps he would entertain them. But Jesus did not perform for Herod or retinue. In fact, he did not answer his accusers who followed him into Herod’s presence. He stood silent. Herod, tiring of the this man standing mute in his presence, strained to get some amusement by having his soldiers throw an elegant gown over Jesus, mocking and ridiculing him as the “king of the Jews.”
Pilate was now ready for his judgement. He called together the chief priests, the rulers, and the people.
“You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him. ”
Pilate should have known better. He was in the land of the Jews, a fiercely independent people whose priests would brook no challenge to their authority. But this Jesus was innocent. That was the truth. He did not deserve to die. Who was governing here? Pilate, the Roman proconsul representing the armed legions of Rome that had conquered much of the known world? Or this rabble, demanding the execution of an innocent man?
However, if he did not satisfy them, they might incite the rabble to rebellion. Pilate only had so many soldiers stationed in Palestine. He could not withstand, in the short run, a full scale revolt. His career was in jeopardy. But so was the truth.
Let’s back off the story for a moment. We’ll see it to the end below. Pilate faced a quandary many of us have to face. To tell the truth, or, in Pilate’s case, to render a judgement.
This happens every day, of course, in our courts. Juries and judges listen to the impassioned pleas of lawyers on behalf of their clients. In most cases, someone is not telling the truth. It is the job of judge and jury to determine the truth, and then to act on the law. Convict and sentence, or acquit and set free. We all wonder when an O. J. Simpson comes to trial for the murder of his wife. Was he lying, or telling the truth? At stake is, sometimes, life and death.
Truth, and its opposite, however, can be pretty humdrum. It can be a judge adjudicating in a small claims court between a housewife and a vacuum cleaner salesman, or one of us discerning the little white lie proferred by our child to cover himself from punishment.
On the scale of importance, truth-telling and lying, however, rank high among the great humorists and writers of America–Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Will Rogers for example. They all wrote pungently, sometimes comically, sometimes seriously, on truth. It seemed to them a most scarce quality.
Twain (Samuel Clemens) considered the truth a rare commodity indeed.
“Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it.” (Notebook, 1898)
Mencken thought lying was inherently natural to man. Telling the truth was hard. For Mencken the atheist, truth was not to be found in religion which, he wrote, “is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration–courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth.” This is probably the ultimate conceit, that puts man at the center of existence. From it rises a cynicism toward the truth that tickles our funny bone, but denies, ultimately, the validity of truth.
“Conscience,” quipped Mencken, “is the inner voice that warns us that someone may be looking.”
Mencken was right, of course. Someone is looking.
Will Rogers pointed to the inherent weakness of man.
“Whoever wrote the Ten Commandments,” Rogers commented, “made ’em short. They may not always be kept but they can be understood.”
Mencken may have thought religion the abode of the ignorant and bigoted, but one gets the feeling that Samuel Clemens and Will Rogers were less willing to dismiss the inherent proclivity of men to TRY and speak and live the truth as revealed in Scripture.
Truth as an element we can all agree upon gets slippery as a banana peel when we consider it on a purely natural basis; that is to say, one based simply on man’s version of what constitutes truth, and what does not. But God in his wisdom did not leave us to our own devices. He supplied us with truth, as described in the wisdom literature from Proverbs and Psalms above for example, and it has to be the bedrock of our life as Christians.
We can smirk with Mencken, laugh with Clemens, and wonder at the immensely prosaic, but telling, wisdom of a Will Rogers. But, after all is said and done, nothing they wrote provides us with absolute guidelines, although Clemens does give us a kind of Burma Shave road sign wisdom.
“When in doubt, tell the truth.”
“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself as a liar.”
And, “an injurious truth has no merit over an injurious lie. Neither should ever be uttered. The man who speaks an injurious truth, lest his soul be not saved if he do otherwise, should reflect that that sort of a soul is not strictly worth saving.”
Pilate, however, would probably not been amused by witticisms or clever quips of a Twain, or Rogers, or Mencken. What Pilate wanted was the plain and unvarnished truth.
Was this Jesus guilty of a crime, punishable by death? Or not?
Pilate continued to interrogate Jesus after Herod sent Jesus back to the Roman governor.
“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked.
This time Jesus did not stand mute. “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied sarcastically. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
So Jesus told the Roman, “My kingdom is not of this world,” adding “my kingdom is from another place.”
Pilate was confused. He shot back, “You are a king, then!”
Jesus looked at Pilate, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
The “truth” thought Pilate? These Jews talk in riddles.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. Silence ensued. What was clear to Pilate was Jesus’s innocence.
A message was handed to him. It was from his wife. “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” Pilate did not dismiss this lightly. Prophetic vision and omens were windows into the future opened by the gods.
He stood up and walked out to the Jews waiting outside his palace. It was almost dawn of Friday. A morning chill was on the air. Pilate wrapped his robe more tightly around him. The Passover Feast would be celebrated that day and the Jews did not want to become ceremonially unclean by transgressing into Pilate’s palace.
“I find no basis for a charge against him,” Pilate told them. “I’ll set him free as is the custom,” Pilate added, for it was the governor’s custom to pardon and release a prisoner chosen by the crowd at Passover.
“No! No!” the Jews shouted. “Give us Barabbas,” a convicted rebel.
“Barabbas?” Pilate asked. “You want Barabbas?”
“Yes!” the crowd thundered.
Damn this crowd! I’ll not do it. Pilate dug his heels in. He was, after all, a Roman governor and soldier, representing the mightiest empire on earth in this wretched corner of the world.
“Flog him and turn him loose,” Pilate told the guards as he turned and returned into the palace.
The buzz from the uprorious crowd continued outside as Jesus was flogged, his back opened by the lash of the whip. To amuse themselves the soldiers fashioned a crown of thorns and clamped it on Jesus’s head. “Look, the King of the Jews!” They threw a purple robe over him to complete the charade. How ludicrous, this simple peasant from Galilee garbed in the royal purple!
Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
The chief priests and officials incited the others, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Pilate sized up the rabble, now mutinous and dangerous. He would have to do something with this Jesus to appease them. But the truth kept nagging at him.
“Why crucify him? What crime has he committed?” Pilate shot back at the priests and officials.
The Jews insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”
“That’s no crime,” Pilate responded. “This man goes free,” he added.
“No! No!” the Jews shouted, “if you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
Pilate wavered, then relented. Perhaps Jesus was guilty of treason, sedition against the State, in rebellion against the Emperor. He looked at the Galillean bent over before him, trickles of blood on his sweaty, grimy face, his back opened by the lash, bowed. Pilate really didn’t know what he was, but he was no traitor guilty of breaking Roman law. Then the truth buckled.
“Here is your king,” Pilate said softly. “You take him and crucify him.”
In one last parting shot, as if to get the penultimate word in an argument, Pilate told the Jews, “but as for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”
Pilate reached down into a trough of water for horses, and plunged his hands in. He washed them in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility.”
Pilate’s decision closes the circle for us as we near the end of this chapter. Pilate denied both the higher truth of Jesus’s divinity and the natural or ordinary truth that he was innocent of charges leveled at him by the Jews.
Yet, our ordinary, day-to-day decisions are hardly the stuff that Pontius Pilate faced! Pilate occupies a peculiar and unique niche in the rise of Christianity. He was there at the beginning, but, as a Roman and Gentile. He was not part of the immediate movement that Jesus initiated, preaching repentance, forgiveness, and the imminent dawning of the Kingdom of God among the Jews. Pilate didn’t understand this prophet-like character that so stirred the priests and leaders of the Jews.
Would Pilate have listened to Jesus in other circumstances? A Roman centurion did earlier in Jesus’s ministry. He believed in Jesus’s miraculous powers and sent for Jesus to heal a servant. Jesus did so. The centurion acknowledged Jesus’s sovereignty and Jesus rewarded him for his faith.
“I say to you,” Jesus said, “that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Clearly, the message was for all to hear, not just the Jews. The apostle Paul would become the quintessential apostle to the Gentiles in the years following Jesus’s crucifixion.
But Pilate did not understand, partially because the message of God’s coming kingdom on earth had to be accepted on faith. We turn to that subject in the next chapter. Yet Pilate did see the truth of the matter. Jesus was innocent. And yet he crucified him.
No symbolic washing of hands, no acceptance by the Jews of responsibility–all the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” when Pilate disowned responsibility–could change his denial of the truth. His career was at stake. An ugly, rebellious mob might overwhelm his small continent of troopers stationed in Jerusalem. Jesus conceivably actually BE guilty of sedition, challenging the authority of Caesar. One can find many, many excuses for not speaking or acting on the truth.
So Pilate was bound forever by his acts, by his tongue.
Are all those lies we have told going to consign us to a frozen or boiling niche in hell, next to Pilate?
No. You have Christ and Scripture–God’s Word–to lead you like the North Star to truth. You will NEVER fail to be a Christian, walking in the way of Jesus, if you act and speak on the truth.
So, what happened to Lester and I? Remember, he told me a whopper, and now I had to confront him. How did the Lord provide for me once I determined to face Lester with the truth?
“You know Larry,” Lester told me one afternoon as I thought about how I was going to do this.
“Waal, you know Larry that I’ve got a lot a problems.”
Sure enough I admitted.
“And I’m going to have to find work somewhere else to make ends meet Larry.”
You’re leaving here?
“Shore am Larry. Sorry, but I’ve got to move on.”
Oh Lord, you do take care of your own!
Lester was gone, bless his soul. He also carried a part of my silver with him that he had not earned, but I leaned on Scripture and wrote that off.
I can’t guarantee you that you will not walk straight into the face of strife and confrontation when you walk in the truth. But you WILL walk in the way of the Lord.
To do so, however, takes a great leap. That leap is by faith. If truth gives us some guidelines for Christian living, then faith makes it possible. Let’s turn to the next chapter and see how this works.
 My thanks to Cathy Jenkins, friend and housekeeper, mother of five wonderful children, who reminded me of this ditty, Feb., 1999.
 For those too young to remember, Burma Shave ditties dotted the highways of America in the 1950s and 1960s [and earlier perhaps; my memory only goes back to living in America when my family moved to the USA from Peru in 1952]. Six or seven signs in succession, each never more than a short sentence, entertained you as you passed them in sequence. For example,
The one horse shay
Has had its day
So has the brush
And lather way