Palm Sunday

“What Is Truth?” Bob Ryder


Luke 12:2-3
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, nothing secret that will not become known. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.

John 18:12-40 (excerpted)
The soldiers and Jewish authorities arrested Jesus, bound him, and took him to Annas, father-in-law of Caiaphas the high priest. Peter and another disciple followed as they lead Jesus away, and one of the guards said to Peter, ‘You are one of this man’s disciples, aren’t you?” But Peter said, “I am not.”

Now the slaves and Jewish authorities made a fire because of the cold, and Peter was with them as they were warming themselves around it. The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teachings, and Jesus answered, ‘I have always spoken openly. I have always taught in public in the synagogues and temple. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me what I said now as if you don’t already know, as if I’ve ever tried to hide my meaning? Ask anyone who’s ever heard me; everyone knows what I’ve said.’ At this, one of the Jewish authorities struck Jesus, saying, ‘Is that how you answer when the priest asks you a question?’ Jesus replied, ‘If I have spoken falsely, testify to the lie. But if I have spoken truthfully, why do you strike me?’ Then Annas sent him to Caiaphas.

While Peter was warming himself by the fire, they asked him again, ‘You’re one of Jesus’ disciples, aren’t you?’ Again Peter said, ‘I am not.’ But one of the slaves of the high priest pressed him thus, ‘Did I not see you with him in the garden?’ Once more Peter denied it, and at that very instant, the cock crowed.

Finally they took Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters. Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Is this a sincere question, or did the others tell you what to ask me?’ Pilate replied, ‘Am I a Jew? Do I care? Your own people and leaders handed you over to me. What have you done to offend them?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the authorities. As it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate pressed him, ‘So you are a king, then?’ Jesus replied, ‘Those are your words. I have come to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate replied, ‘What is truth?’

After he said this, he went out to the Jews and told them, ‘I find no case against him. We have a custom that I release someone for you at Passover. Shall I release Jesus, King of the Jews?’ They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’

I received an email recently from someone Susan and I both know, asking me to consider a suggestion and talk it over privately before bringing Susan into the conversation.  It called for a decision that would affect both of us.  The details don’t really matter for the story – suffice to say the suggestion was nothing nefarious, nor personal slight toward Susan suggesting she not be informed right away.  I think it was probably just a pragmatic if not all that carefully thought out suggestion for how to process an idea.

I say, “…not all that carefully thought out” for two reasons.  First, almost all the information and inquiries that come to our home go through Susan.  When the phone rings, she usually answers it.  She gets the mail from the box.  She scans our email. This is a very mutual and intentional arrangement; she is welcome to go through any of my stuff anytime – we both like it that way, and it serves us well because Susan just does an excellent job managing our business affairs.  So on a merely pragmatic level, trying to get something past her on its way to me is unlikely.  Obviously, there are exceptions.  Susan and I both know when something is potentially personal.  We respect each other’s privacy, and we honor requests when others ask one of us not to share confidential information.  But our social engineering is set up in such a way that getting something by Susan on its way to me is improbable.

The second reason that overture wasn’t so well thought out is because Susan and just I don’t do “clandestine.”  We make all our decisions together.  We run ideas by each other, check calendars and shopping lists and “where do we see ourselves in 10 years” daydreams – all of it – with each other.  So beyond the issue of pragmatics, asking me to keep something from Susan – that’s just not who we are.  I share this because I’m grateful that in our marriage Susan and I never hide the truth from one another.  We’re not afraid of truth coming out – it’s always out, or at least it’s always available, and we can just about always agree on what the truth is.  That’s a good way to live.

Today is Palm Sunday, and over the years we’ve usually taken the occasion to reflect on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – riding on the donkey before admiring crowds as a contrast to Pontius Pilate coming with a military parade to keep the peace during Passover.  But Palm Sunday is also a prelude to much else that happened during the last week of Jesus life, and this morning my mind is drawn to that encounter with Pilate as Jesus is on trial for his life.  Threatened by his penchant for exposing their hypocrisy and collusion with Rome, the Temple authorities want Jesus dead, but only Rome has the power to impose capital punishment.  Thus we find Jesus before Pilate as the governor tries to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it.  “Why are your leaders so offended by you?  What is this about you’re being ‘King of the Jews?’”  Jesus simple yet stunning answer is that his purpose in the world is to tell the truth.  And we are left to ponder that terrible response, “What is truth?”

Counter intuitive though it might seem, agreeing on what truth isn’t always such an easy thing.  In the course of finding our way in the world, sometimes it’s just hard to identify what’s actually happening; hard to take the measure what’s going on.  Physical reality is complex.  One of the best ways to appreciate the spiritual potential of science is to recognize it as a process of seeking facts, seeking the truth.  It’s a carefully refined process of looking for connections, understanding how the world really works on both minute and grand scales.  I took an advanced course in behavior studies last year, and one of the most interesting aspects was looking at how often scientific studies reporting tangible conclusions turn out to be wrong, or at least much less conclusive than they appear at first.  It’s rare to replicate studies and find the same answers obtained by the original researchers.  This is true in physics, behavior, economics, biology, and on and on.  Some of the reasons have to do with the intricate, often elusive nature of reality.  Some of it has to do with social pressures to publish – grant funding and career security tend to favor those who publish findings.  It’s surprising how easy it is to find statistical significance when tenure is on the line.  As Mark Twain noted, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Another factor that makes it hard to agree on truth is the nearly universal human tendency to see what we want to see, and ignore what makes us uncomfortable.  Those of you who’ve seen the movie “Remember the Titans” might recall a scene in which several players of the T.C. Williams High School football team (The Titans) go out to celebrate after a win.  The plot is about the experience of players on an integrated team navigating the realities of the still racially segregated town in Virginia.  Ronnie Bass – the white quarterback – has persuaded his black teammates to go against their better judgment and enter a restaurant that caters only to white customers.  There’s an ugly exchange when the proprietor confronts the boys and makes them leave.  Walking away, Ronnie apologizes to his humiliated and angry teammates, one of whom is openly hostile and dismissive of Ronnie’s contrition.  When another teammate tries to explain that Ronnie, being from California, didn’t know the realities of their racially divided world, the infuriated boy replies, “He didn’t WANT to know!”  Sometimes the way of the world is obvious, but so unpleasant that we don’t let ourselves acknowledge it.  Naiveté is one way of dismissively asking “What is truth?” as we allow ourselves to ignore facts in favor of a made up reality that seems comfortable or advantageous.  We distort our own perceptions so as to avoid unpleasant facts of life.

Another factor that makes it difficult to agree on truth is when someone deliberately distorts another’s picture of reality with misleading perspective or outright lies.  We see this weekly if not daily, with political propaganda meant to cast aspersions on the reputation of others while distracting from one’s own misconduct.  If your insecure about the legitimacy of an election, claim your opponent benefitted from millions of illegal votes.  “What is truth?”  If you’re insecure about your record of misogyny, claim “No one respects women more than me.”  “What is truth?”  If you have no policy experience or concrete proposals, just say, “We’re going to get this or that done so much faster and cheaper and better than anyone else ever has it’ll make your head spin.” “What is truth?”

As we come into these last days our Journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, we hear Pilate teasing Jesus with that cruel rejoinder, “What is truth?”  It’s deliberately cynical.  No doubt John imagined Pilate’s tone as flippant, dismissive, condescending.  In the presence of all his accusers Jesus has spoken forthrightly and with integrity, modeling in his speech as well as his actions the truth of compassion and equality and justice, and for it he is beaten and mocked.  “I have come to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” John frames Pilate’s retort so as to cast the governor in the most revealing if unflattering light.  “What is truth?” The point seems to be that then, as now, those who’ve allowed themselves to be corrupted in the acquisition of power are divorced from any commitment to facts, immune to any perspective about the larger reality of right and wrong, absolved by their privilege from any consequence of ignoring reality.  For such as they truth is malleable, negotiable.  At best it is a distraction, at worst it’s irrelevant, and in general it’s deliberately distorted with propaganda – reality twisted by disinformation in service to one’s ego agenda.  For those like Pilate, truth ends up being replaced by whatever “alternative facts” they decide to proffer on any given day, depending on the situation and audience.

Holy Week is the ‘moment of truth’ in our Lenten journey.  It is a reminder of what’s at stake when truth is crucified by the power of the state.  Now more than ever, it challenges us to declare whether we will stand with truth, or just stand by the fire observing what’s going on from a distance. Amen.