He really should have listened to his wife. I could be talking about a number of us here, but in this case I’m talking about Pontius Pilate. According to Matthew 27:19, she sent word to her husband not to condemn Jesus Christ to death on a cross. “While Pilate was sitting in the judgment hall, his wife sent him a message: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, because in a dream last night, I suffered much on account of him.”
The weary governor tried to follow his wife’s lead, reporting to the Jewish authorities that he found no guilt in the man he called “the King of the Jews.” But the crowd would not have it. They demanded that Pilate deliver a death sentence. In the end, Pilate either cared too much about what the crowd thought or cared too little about the truth of Jesus’ innocence. So he “washed his hands and sealed his fate,” ignoring his wife’s message, as well as his own appraisal of the truth of the matter.
Truth is what is on Jesus’ mind in his interaction with Pilate in this morning’s gospel. Jesus says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” To which Pilate famously responds, “What is truth?” If Jesus did answer Pilate’s question, it is not recorded in John’s gospel. Dang. I wish we had his response on record, because Pilate’s question is a deep and enduring one: what is truth?
Children seem to know what truth is. They seem to easily grasp the concepts of right and wrong, truth and lie. The scripture says one reason for this is that God has written his Law on our hearts.
What is truth? Even dogs seem to know. Our dog, Blue, is not allowed on our bed. And yet, he sneaks up there every chance he gets. When he hears my footsteps in the hallway near our bedroom, I hear the “kathunk” of Blue jumping off our bed. He then avoids eye contact with me as he slinks off to his pillow on the floor.
What is truth? Christie was at a luncheon with some of her relatives last week and her older cousin, who is prone to flourish and exaggeration, was telling a story about her daughter and granddaughters. As she held the floor, her 9 year old granddaughter kept interrupting her. “No, Nana! That’s not how it happened. That’s not true, Nana. You’re lying, Nana!” The granddaughter was like a little fact checker after a debate.
My parents tell me that when I was little and I was accused of some family misdemeanor, I would inevitably try to talk my way out of it, proclaiming my innocence. And instead of saying, “I’m telling the truth” or “this is the truth” I would say, “I am the truth!” I left out “the way and the life”, but clearly I was struggling with messianic pretensions even at 3 years of age.
What is truth? On the most basic level of human relationship, truth is a highly prized commodity. Truth equals trust. If a teenager lies to a parent about what she has been doing or not doing, then the parent just can’t trust the teenager. In most cases, the teen’s freedom is compromised in the form of grounding. Not telling the truth simply violates the trust necessary in loving relationship.
When a husband does not tell the truth to his wife, especially when it comes to other women, or money or some kind of activity that the husband would rather hide from the light of day, then the wounds run deep, inevitably. Forgiveness, by the grace of God, can happen, but trust takes a long, long time to be restored. It just does. Forgiving doesn’t automatically mean forgetting.
God does forgive and forget our sin – “I will remember their sins and lawless deeds no more” as we read in last week’s reading from Hebrews. But husbands and wives tend to have trouble with the forgetting part of forgiveness.
David Brooks wrote a recent editorial about the importance of families. Being in a family forces you outside of yourself and your own megalomaniacal tendencies. Pilate really should have listened to his wife. She spoke the truth, whether or not she did it in love is another question. The church community, we hope, is a place for people, both single and married, to be loved out of themselves.
What is truth, Pilate asks. We might be tempted to ask Pilate, “How can you stand next to the Truth and not see it?” Literally, in Pilate’s case. You have your wife’s dream and your own convictions. Stick to the truth, Pilate!
And yet I’m thinking about the ways that all of us veer from the truth one way or another, either by obfuscation or down righty lying. We are just too well defended when someone “speaks the truth in love.” It could be an image we present to hide where we’ve come from or where we are going. It could be the way we highlight certain aspects of a situation, but eliminate others. It could be “selective memory.” A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
Sometimes our psyches are working overtime to convince us of our innocence because we cannot face the truth of our own guilt. Jack Nicholson’s courtroom rant in A Few Good Men was recently voted the most memorable movie quote ever. “Truth! You can’t handle the truth!” he explodes to a young Tom Cruise. Sometimes we can’t handle the truth of our actions, so we make up alternative stories and begin to actually believe them. And we certainly try to make everyone else believe them.
When I was 19, I crashed a car filled with my close friends. I was driving recklessly, dangerously. My best friend, Drew, lost his eye in the wreck. I could not accept the truth that I would do this to my friend. So I blamed the car. I told my parents and lawyers that there was a problem with the steering mechanism of the 1980 Ford Fiesta. My lawyers pursued the case with the automaker.
It wasn’t until a mediation meeting with me and Drew and both of our lawyers, many months after the wreck, that I broke down and said, “it wasn’t the car – it was me. The car was fine. I did it. It was my fault.” My lawyers tried to convince me that it was the car’s fault. I remember sitting at that conference table, looking across at Drew with his one eye, saying “But that’s not the truth. The truth is that I was driving recklessly. I crashed and my best friend lost his eye. That is the truth.” Sometimes we can’t handle the truth. But as Flannery O’Connor says, “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.”
Have you ever spoken to someone who has nothing left to hide? He or she has been exposed in a lie – outed as a fraud? There can be a tremendous freedom in these people – the terrible burden of projecting an image and protecting some ugly truth taken away. A dear friend who is now serving time in prison told me that the day he was arrested was both the worst day, and yet the best day of his life. I still remember the rush of relief as I confessed the truth of my wreck. I stopped calling it an “accident” and started calling it a “wreck.”
What is truth? Jesus doesn’t answer that question directly, but He does say that He has come into the world to testify to the truth. Today we use the word “testify” in court and in church, in law and in religion. To testify in court is to give a solemn attestation of the truth of a matter. To testify in church is to tell the story of what God has done. “Can I get a witness!” I suppose Jesus is doing a little of both here in the presence of Pontius Pilate. He is being tried in court and He testifies to what God is about to do.
What is truth? A better question might be “Who is truth?” Jesus has already answered that question, earlier in his ministry. He says, “I am the Truth”. He does not have messianic pretensions – He is the Messiah. He testifies to Himself as God. Pilate is standing next to Truth.
And that is the very thing that causes His death. As the Jews tell Pilate a little later when he tries to heed his wife’s warning and let his prisoner go, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” Jesus spoke a truth that we could not handle and it led him to His death. That innocent man suffered much on account of us.
Jesus says, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Who is of the truth? Perhaps those who hear the truth in the prophet Isaiah, who says, “all we like sheep have gone astray, each to our own way, and the Lord as laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” What is truth? Jesus Christ is truth. And His truth IS love, the love that covers the multitude of our sins.
- John 18:33 - 38