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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

What Is Truth?

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

James 3:1-12

What is truth? That was Pontius Pilate’s question, and it’s still a question today. On television and radio, in newspapers and magazines, we hear and read all kinds of conflicting stories. With speeches and commentaries about the war in Iraq, the economy, the recall vote in California (sermon originally written 10/05/2003), the Democratic primary, the election over a year from now, and accusations against various people, we’re given all kinds of conflicting stories. What one person says is truth, another says is lying. What one person says is lying, another says is truth.

Today I want to look for a few minutes at what God has to say about truth and lying, because truth and lying affects us all. We all have problems with what we say, how we say it, and what we fail to say. The Apostle James, in his epistle, had this to say (James 3:3-12): “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” Of course “salt water” can refer to cursing, obscene talk, gossiping, slandering, criticizing, and so on – but today I just want to look at being truthful and lying.

The question, “What is truth?” isn’t new. It’s very old. In the Book of Genesis we read how Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, and then dipped his coat in goat’s blood and took it to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.” He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. (Gen. 37:23-36)

Were the eleven sons liars? What lie did they tell? Was it their fault their father jumped to a conclusion? Legally? Essentially?

When Jesus was interrogated by Pontius Pilate, Pilate asked Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world”… “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “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.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked. (John 18:28-38)

What is truth? First let’s look and see, “What is a lie?” And what is lying? Any untrue statement? No – we don’t call the weatherman a liar when he tells us the sun will shine tomorrow and it rains instead. Webster says to lie is “to make a statement that one knows is false, especially with intent to deceive.” And “to give a false impression.” I believe we can say that a lie is (1) any willfully untrue statement, (2) any deliberate false representation, (3) any intentional design to mislead or deceive, and – remember Joseph’s brothers – (4) any attempt to withhold information another rightfully and justly deserves to know.

The key to any and all definitions of lies and lying is the intention, the motive, the attitude of the heart. Any intentional deception – even though it’s said in words that are true in themselves – is a lie!

Like the lady, in the days of World War II sugar rationing who went to the ration board to request extra sugar stamps. “All the sugar we have in the house is what’s on the kitchen table,” she said plaintively. “How much sugar is on your kitchen table?” asked the official. “Two hundred pounds,” her little boy blurted out.

No matter how true a statement may be, it can be a deliberate lie in intention. And what is false in intent is false in fact. It’s the motive that matters most.

A person can tell the truth and still be a liar. All we have to do is select which truths to tell, or which half-truths to combine, and with a little practice and a little bit of luck, we can be “honest” liars.

We all know too well how news can be “managed” to make it tell the desired story, or how events can be distorted to protect national or personal interests. And it can be done while sticking to the facts. Carefully selected facts, of course.

How about you young people? Suppose your parents tell you it’s okay to go to Mary’s house, but not okay to go to Betty’s house. So you announce you’re going to Mary’s and off you go. And you go to Mary’s house – for a few minutes. And then you go to Betty’s – for a few hours! You arrive home, and your mother asks you where you’ve been – and you say, “I went to Mary’s.” That’s the truth, right? Or is it?!

Truth is consistent with itself. It doesn’t need any help to stand alone. But a lie is always crippled. It needs a second lie for a brace – then another for a crutch. It’s easy to tell a lie – but it’s hard to tell only one lie!

Like one summer, twenty-some years (closer to 40 now), when we were living in Virginia. My wife and daughters had gone to visit family in Michigan; my son and I were “batching” it. Well, one morning Kurt went off to work – for a moving company as I recall – and a few minutes later I left for work. The instant I shut the door behind me, I knew I’d left my keys in the house. I worked about ten miles from home so I had to use my car. I checked every door to the house and they were all locked. What to do? And then I had a brainstorm! The sliding window over our bed could be opened by pushing in on it and sliding it, and we had built a deck off our bedroom. So I got a ladder, climbed up on the deck, pried off the screen, pushed on the window, and slid it open. Since it was a high window, I got a lawn chair, took it up on the deck, climbed up on it, and up into the window.

There I was, kneeling on the window sill, looking down at my bed. I was home free! So I just rolled forward through the window and onto the bed. But my knee hit my side and knocked the wind out of me. I laid there until I got my breath back. But when I went to get up, my side was killing me. And I thought, “Oh, no! I must have cracked a rib or something!” Well, I went to work, and I did okay though it hurt, until the next morning when I went to get up. I could hardly move! It really hurt!

So I figured I’d better go to the emergency room and have it checked. They X-rayed it and then the doctor came and asked what had happened. Now, maybe it was because the doctor was a lady – and I know that shouldn’t make any difference – but I didn’t feel like telling her that I’d fallen through the window onto my bed. So I just said – not wanting to lie, of course – “I fell.” That was essentially the truth, right? But it didn’t satisfy the doctor. “Did you fall against something?” she asked. I need to prop up my first half-truth: “Yes, I fell against my bed.” Now, that was legally true, wasn’t it? But the good doctor wasn’t convinced. “Do you drink in the morning?” “No!” Now I needed a crutch for my two fibs, and this one was a lie: “I was pulling on my pants and stepped on a pant leg and I fell forward and I hit the edge of my bed!” She just looked at me and said, “Oh.” And I wished I’d told her the truth!!

It’s not enough to talk of telling the truth, or even of telling the whole truth. We need to be the truth. To be true persons. To be true to ourselves, to be true to others, and to be true to God, the source of all truth. Yes, it’s important that we tell the truth and nothing but the truth to others. But we need to face the real question, get down to the real issue. We need to ask ourselves, “Am I willing to be the truth, to do the truth?”

It’s one thing to say the truth. It’s another to be it. Most people say they love the truth, claim to tell the truth, and insist they always want the truth. But are they willing to be true? To be the truth?

That’s what makes Jesus stand out from every other person. He said, “I am the truth.” (John 14:6) And those nearest Him confirmed it. The Apostle John wrote, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the only begotten. Who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” And, “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14,17)

And He asked us to be as true as the light, without any shadow of dishonesty in us.

What a release it is to become a true person. And what a relief it is to be the truth – to be truly ourselves before God, before others, and before ourselves. No need to run and hide. No more games of hide-and-seek with our conscience. No more faking. No more phony play-acting. No more false fronts or false faces.

That’s when we’re free. Free to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – by the help of God.


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