A sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, 2017
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (14:6)
Later, at his trial before Pilate, he said, “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.” (John 18:37)
But Pilate treated truth with contempt, like a thing to be ordered by his whim. “What is truth?” he said. (John 18:38)
Sometimes, it’s pretty easy to find out the truth of what’s going on. For example, I received an email this week via the church’s account, marked “Extremely Urgent,” from a man I will call WM. Mr M wrote, in part,
The Bank has sent me frequent memos urging me to get in contact with the beneficiary of the sum of THREE MILLION FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND POUND in the account of my late client at their bank … Till his death I was his personal lawyer, this was why the bank informed me to get in Contact with the beneficiary of his bequest funds in their custody. I have made series contacts to get the beneficiary without success and I just confirmed that the beneficiary has also passed on … and his family relocates from their former address no one know their where about and I could not locate them after several try.
For this reason I like to present you to the bank as the beneficiary of the bequest THREE MILLION FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND POUND to enable us to claim the funds from the bank otherwise the funds will remain in the bank unclaimed, meaning the funds will belong to the bank if not claimed. I have all the details to claim the funds from the bank peacefully and lawfully.
Get back to me for us to work together and claim the funds from the bank for ourselves.
I did write straight back to Mr M, advising him that this was a church, and that I would pray for him. He responded, IN ALL CAPS,
I am quite aware is church email i.e. (Church of the Epiphany). I contacted you so that part of the funds can be as donation for the church. That is, by the time we claim the funds, I will have 40% for myself, 40% for you and 20% for Church of the Epiphany as donation.
Reply if you are interested so that we can commence to claim the funds immediately without delay.
So I explained to Mr M that I thought it unbecoming of a priest to claim falsely to be the beneficiary of a man whom I had never met, even for the sake of a substantial donation to the parish coffers. I reminded him that Jesus told his disciples that it would be easier for a camel to thread the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. I could have added something about choosing God over mammon, or the time that Jesus himself declined to involve himself in an inheritance argument between two brothers, or that he advised on storing up treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth can destroy, nor thieves steal it away, and that where one’s treasure lies, there one’s heart will dwell also. But I wanted to keep it short and sweet.
Mr M, to my surprise, was not yet deterred, but offered his further opinion that I was quite wrong, explaining,
You will not be dishonest to involve in matter of this nature because if we don’t claim the funds from the bank, the fund will ever remain in the bank unclaimed and automatically the funds will be long to the bank. I am a very good Christian so I believe it is far better and more religious for us to claim the funds and use for ourselves and in the course of propagating our religion. This how I look at the whole matter. The lord will reward you if we claim the funds and make donation to the church rather than allow the funds to remain in the bank forever.
“The lord will reward you” for bending the truth.
My final word in the matter was that I was unconvinced that pretending to be someone I was not would still be dishonest, even if it deprived the bank of undeserved money. I also let Mr M in on the secret that his emails read somewhat like a scam to trick an unsuspecting person into revealing their own bank details down the road. I continued to assure him of my prayers, and I have been praying for him, whatever his true name might be, ever since.
The truth is, of course, as fun as it was, that I had no right to be holier than thou with him. We all fall short of scrupulous truthfulness from time to time. It’s easy to spot the lie in a scam email, but it is harder to keep an eye on that subtle tendency of sin to skew our discernment, especially when it is coupled with expediency, or greed, or need, or “the lord will reward you.”
But whenever we turn away from the truth, we lose sight of Jesus.
In an exhaustive examination of the ethics of truth-telling and deception, Sissela Bok says that
Deception is taken for granted when it is felt to be excused by those who tell the lies and who tend also to make the rules. [i]
In other words, those with the power to shape the world around them decide for themselves what manipulations of the truth are acceptable in order to do so. By means of false words, they remake the world to suit their purpose. Remember Pilate?
People with that kind of power – and the scammers who prey on people by email are only a caricature, a cartoon villain of the type – people with the power to deceive live in a different world than those who, as Bok notes, are “rendered powerless” by the falsehood.[ii]
But the world was created by the Word of God, which is the ultimate truth; the Word of God, which is the Christ; Jesus, who is the way, and the truth, and the life.
And Jesus, in the gospels and in everything that follows, has a tendency to side with the powerless.
He is the way, and the truth, and the life. Thomas asks him, “How will we know the way?” And Philip says, “Just show us God already and we’ll be satisfied, we’ll be good.”
Jesus tells them, “You know the way. I am the way, and the truth, and the life. And if you are paying any kind of attention to me, you have seen God.”
When we turn from the truth, we lose sight of Jesus. When we turn away from him, we lose sight of God.
The words we use to try to remake the world in our own interest and our own image cannot replace that creative Word of God, which writes truth on the heart and directs all of life towards its loving mercy.
As the twentieth-century poet WH Auden wrote,
He is the Way. Follow him …
He is the Truth. Seek him …
He is the Life. Love him …”[iii]
[i] Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, 2nd edition (Vintage Press, 1999), Introduction xxviii
[ii] ibid, Introduction xxix
[iii] From WH Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, part IV, in WH Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson (Vintage International, 1991), p. 400; and in The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church, #463 & 464