The Whole Truth

“The Whole Truth,” Susan Ryder

 Are you aware of the power of your word, of speaking truth? What are some of the ways you’ve experienced the power of your word in your life? Consider that question as I share a few readings.

 Matthew 15:1-20 (selected verses)
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “I don’t get it?” Then he said, “Are you still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Don Miguel Ruiz – The first of the Four Agreements – Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

From “1984” by George Orwell
“Doublethink lies at the very heart of (the state), since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.”

This past week, three career civil servants stood before the Congressional Investigative Committee, raised their right hands, and promised that the testimony they were about to give was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. After sharing opening statements, William Taylor, George Kent, and Marie Yovanovitch answered questions from congressional attorneys and members of the committee for several hours. Contrary to headlines after the first round of hearings proclaiming them “dull” and “lacking pizazz,” I found them riveting – in part for the content of their words, but mostly for the admirable integrity each of them displayed. I was inspired and humbled by their truth-speaking in the face of so much animosity and scurrilous attacks on their character, in particular by Marie Yovanovitch, who was maligned on Twitter by the president while she testified. I expect to be similarly impressed by the other patriots coming forward in the weeks to come, who will speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in their own testimony before Congress and to the American people.

Being honest and truthful was instilled in me growing up – I was taught that it was always better to tell the truth and face whatever consequences there might be, than to lie and lose trust and respect. My parents taught me this by example, and as a result, not only is it almost physically impossible for me to lie, I have always found truth-tellers compelling and admirable – especially those who speak truth to power, in spite of the inherent risks of doing so. Conversely I have always been particularly offended by liars – I take lying personally, even if I’m not the one being lied to!

Jesus was a truth-teller, so much so he ultimately gave his life for the truth. In the passage from Matthew, Jesus told his disciples and nearby Pharisees in rather graphic detail that what came out of their mouths that was more important than what went into them. This was in response to their criticism of the disciples not following the purity code, which, among many things, called for the washing of hands before eating. Now, certainly it IS a good practice to wash hands before eating in order to avoid ingesting germs that might make you sick – but that was not the reason the Pharisees were calling them out. They were not concerned about their health. They were looking for any and every way Jesus or the disciples broke the rules, or the purity code, so they could point it out and condemn them as not being good Jews, in order to take them down a peg and hopefully effect their standing and popularity with the people. Jesus’ response, time and time again, was to throw their purity code back into their faces. In this case he pointed out that what defiles someone isn’t what they put into their mouths, with or without dirty hands – but what comes out of their mouths, the words they speak. It’s not whether or not they keep kosher or wash their hands that is sinful, but whether their words harm or heal; whether they like or speak the truth.

Anne Sutherland Howard writes, “Jesus’ followers knew that his teaching about purity was not the same as the temple’s teaching about purity. In fact, Jesus defied the holiness code with a continued series of teaching and action that raised the ire of religious authorities. I can imagine Jesus saying these words with an emphasis on heart – (‘Blessed are the pure in heart’) making the point that purity of heart matters more than dietary rules or practices, as he says in Matthew 15: ‘It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ Jesus’ followers also knew that his teaching was not limited to their personal integrity or personal practices. [It was] a call for an alternative kind of social vision and practice, a new way to order community life.” It was a communal undertaking – open to everyone, not just the rich and elite.

The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz came to mind for me as I was reflecting on this passage in light of the impeachment hearings. Rev. David Weissbard writes, “Ruiz places the greatest emphasis on the first agreement: Be impeccable with your word. [Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.] Words are symbols, they are a force, [among] the most powerful tools we have. Words can free us or enslave us. In his book, Ruiz wrote about how Hitler sent out ‘seeds of fear’ by the words he used and successfully manipulated a whole country of intelligent people. ‘All over the world people destroyed other people because they were afraid of one another.’ Note: Ruiz’s words were written [over 20] years ago and were not intended as a commentary on any contemporary politician, although ‘if the shoe fits…’” Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

The testimony we heard from our nation’s Capital is a study in contrasts – on the one hand we have examples of what it means to honor the truth in spite of personal risks, challenges, and opposition by entrenched power, exemplified by Taylor, Kent, and Yovanovitch. And on the other hand we have an example of what it means to twist and distort the truth as a sacrilege against one of the most sacred bonds for human society, as exemplified by members of congress whose theatrics at the beginning of Friday’s hearing were a deceitful ploy to trick people into believing they were being silenced, even though the rules of the committee were well known and agreed to ahead of time.

Now, lest our takeaway from this morning be to point fingers at “those people,” “liars” or anyone in government – let me remind us that Jesus’ admonishment about the importance of what comes out of our mouths invites us to point that finger back at ourselves more than to point it at others. There is little we can do about other people being dishonest. We can certainly call it out, and perhaps there will be fitting consequences – but at the end of the day we cannot control the behavior of anyone else. We can, however, be responsible for our own behavior, our own words. In the face of so much deceit from others, it is my hope that we may we be inspired to speak the truth, to monitor our own words. We all have a responsibility to the truth – however we perceive the Divine – and nothing gets closer to the core of the Sacred than the concept of speaking truth, of building up rather than tearing down. Therefore, may we turn our eyes onto ourselves and be impeccable with our word. Perhaps one way we can do that is to ask oneself before we speak: Is what I am about to say true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

Returning to my original question, are you aware of the power of your word, of speaking truth? What are some of the ways you’ve experienced the power of your word in your life? Here is an example from my own experience. Near the end of a conversation with a friend, I shared some positive affirmations with her. They came at the end of our conversation, and they were heartfelt. A couple of days later my friend let me know how much my words meant to her – that she really appreciated my sharing some of the things I admire about her. I have to admit that I was taken aback by her gratitude. I remembered the exchange, and meant every word I said – but they came as sort of an afterthought at the end of our conversation, if you know what I mean – a few parting words I shared that as it turned out, were very meaningful for her. That gave me an example of the power of my words – even as an afterthought – and the impact they had. Are you aware of the power of your word, of speaking your truth? What are some of the ways you’ve experienced the power of your word in your life?