This has been a hard month for truth. Presidential candidates speak as if truth mattered but then give arguments that are specious and interchangeable. Modern governors like Pontius Pilate proclaim policies that acknowledge the truth of security but ignore the truth of compassion. Members of this church debate whether truth can turn into gossip, or only falsehood. Facebook has come alive with debates about the proper response to Mali, Paris Beirut, Syria and Iraq. How long can political leaders and the rest of us pretend to care about truth? It looks like we can do it for a long time. Politicians aren’t any worse than the rest of us in standing up for truth. But they’re not any better either, and that’s a sad state of affairs because they have power to set policy.
We have to start with politics because today’s Gospel is thoroughly political. Religious and political authorities tried to keep their hands clean, while safeguarding their political futures. The religious authorities who successfully schemed to do away with God’s Messiah, did not want to enter Pilate’s headquarters so as to avoid ritual defilement, since the Passover was near. Jesus wanted to speak about “truth”, an utterly strange topic to Pilate. Pilate operated in a carefully maintained world of illusion, and the presence of one whose mission was to strip away the illusions and point to what is truly real posed an enormous threat. 'Disillusionment' was precisely what Pilate needed if he was to be set on the road to truth; but it was also what he most feared. We can’t keep our hands clean and commit to the truth at the same time. Truth always threatens, especially when the one in our midst is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus’ truth is risky, relational and revolutionary.
Truth is Risky
What was Pilate’s tone of voice when he asked, ‘What is truth?’ Was he sincere or cynical? Was he seeking or sarcastic? Pilate is in the same dilemma we are in when we stand before Jesus. It looked like Jesus was standing before Pilate. But actually, Pilate was standing before Jesus. Externally, Pilate was in charge. But the dialogue and questions showed that Jesus was really in charge. He defined the terms of the discussion. I believe Pilate’s tone was incredulous, desperate: “Truth? You expect me to care about truth in a moment like this? Do you think that mob out there cares about truth? Do you know what my political future will look like if I don’t give them what their leaders have convinced them they want? I’d be toast. Who has the luxury to care about truth in this world?” This isn’t only an ancient problem. We still start with good intentions when it comes to truth, but then we cave.
Since truth is connected to power, it requires courage. Who has power over us? What compromises do we make with truth to keep our power? Truth is risky precisely because it calls into question the status quo. When a friend speaks truth to us – perhaps saying, “You really shouldn’t have spoken to her like that” - it calls into question the status quo of our life. But we need that. No truth, no freedom. No truth, no growth. No growth, no life. Jesus was giving Pilate the opportunity to face his own truth. Both of
their lives depended on it. Their fates were intertwined. Jesus had accepted Pilate’s power over him. Now if only Pilate could summon the courage to deal with the situation truthfully, he could save both Jesus and himself. When we avoid truth that is staring us in the face, we diminish as persons, and there is less life in us. As this story played out, Pilate was diminished and Jesus was put to death.
What truth are you avoiding today? Ask yourself two questions: what is the worst thing that could happen if you face that truth? And what is happening by avoiding it? The cost of avoiding truth is usually higher than the cost of facing the truth. There’s no denying the risk, but we have to measure the risks of both action and inaction. Right now wise politicians and government officials are doing that about ISIS.
Truth is Relational
Both the religious leaders and Pilate tried to remain disengaged from personal involvement in
the criminal case of Jesus of Nazareth. Both eschewed any personal responsibility for ridding themselves of Jesus the troublemaker. They carried out an avoidance dance. The religious leaders started it. They had Jesus arrested under the shroud of night in a garden away from the crowds; but they were scrupulous to avoid the ritual defilement that would have accompanied entering Pilate’s headquarters. But Pilate didn't let them get away with it. He went out and asked them what accusation they were bringing against Jesus.
Their response wasn’t an answer: “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” But Pilate plays along: ‘Then take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ They had to show their cards: Jesus had already been through a mock trial and had been judged and sentenced. All they wanted from Pilate was a rubber stamp of approval. How convenient that under the Roman system, the religious leaders were not allowed to put anyone to death.
Then Pilate goes inside with Jesus. Jesus kept trying to engage Pilate personally: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate demurs: “I am not a Jew, am I? Don’t try to involve me in this, Jesus. I don’t belong to your community.” Jesus uses Pilate’s response to move him: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
What does it mean to ‘belong to the truth’? That is relational language. For Jesus, truth is not something you believe in; it’s something, or someone you belong to. In other words, “I am the truth. Do you belong to me?”
This is the kind of truth today’s generation is asking for, and that this moment in history demands: relational truth. Truth is not just information to be believed. It has to be lived out by real people. It has to be connected to a person or institution that relates to them truthfully. The question for this week in the world is, does truth have to do with avoiding risk or caring for people? The answer reveals our values. Jesus is truth in human form. That’s the kind of truth we’re looking for; but, like Pilate, we’re scared because Jesus’ truth is so personal. We’re also scared because
Truth is Revolutionary
I grew up believing that law and order were always on the side of truth. It was the Superman
version: truth, justice and the American way. Bad guys were always bad guys and good guys were always good guys. But when I hear that police dogs urinated on, and police vehicles intentionally ran over, a makeshift memorial on the site where Michael Brown’s body lay just hours earlier, I dare not stick with my Superman version of truth. When the eyes are taped over in pictures of black professors at Harvard
University hanging in those learned halls, I dare not stick with Superman. When Mali and Paris
and Beirut and Syria become targets of terrorism, and refugees seeking safe haven are turned away
because terrorism is truly happening, we need to remember that truth is revolutionary.
Pontius Pilate must have come from a neighborhood more like mine than like Michael Brown’s. He spent his life protecting the truth of the status quo. But in his encounter with Jesus, he was threatened with the possibility that perhaps the criminal standing before him had the truth rather than his accusers. He didn’t know what to do with that. His upbringing hadn’t prepared him for this moment. Truth was staring him in the face, and it looked like a revolutionary, and he was scared to death.
How will we respond to truth that is risky, relational and revolutionary? Will we avoid it? Will we try to snuff it out? Or will we embrace it and let it embrace us?