Thursday, March 11, 2021

What is Truth?

Texts: Jeremiah 7.23–28 & Luke 11.14–23

As someone who has a keen interest in politics, I am sorely tempted to preach on this morning’s Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah.  Despairingly, he cries out ‘This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God…; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips.’  In our era of fake truth and political spin (on all sides), it would be deeply satisfying to rant for a few minutes.  I’d love to list all the ways that truth has become a casualty of the battlefield of politics in recent years.  But, from previous sermons, I think you probably already know what I think on this topic!  I think you already understand how far I think the Christian nations of the West have departed from the teachings of Christ.

So instead, let’s delve a little deeper into the nature of Truth itself.  In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus debating with those tiresome Pharisees.  They demand to know by what power does he cast demons – accusing him of using the Devil’s authority.  Jesus, in response, employs reason.  (He is, after all, the ‘logos’ – the reason, wisdom and Word of God).  He asks the Pharisees whether there is any logic at all in their question.  Why would the Devil cast out demons?  For, as he says in a memorable and wise saying, ‘a Kingdom divided against itself cannot stand’.

I’m sure that phrase has gone through the minds of the Royal family this week.  Whatever our views about Harry and especially Meghan’s public utterances, the Royal household – and by extension, the Royal Kingdom - has once again been divided.  Will it stand?  I suspect it will.  After all, the House of Windsor has many years’ experience of managing such crises – as demonstrated this week by the official Palace statement about Meghan and Harry’s complaints. 

For me, the most interesting 3 words of the 69 in the Palace statement were these: ‘recollections may vary’.  These incisive words invite us to think about our own memories of past hurts, or simply of past events, in our own life.  And they invite us acknowledge that the actual truth of any past event is very difficult indeed to establish.  Our memories are not video cameras – our brains record a mixture of emotion, smell, sight and sound…and we know, from much scientific research, that those memories change over time, depending on what we ponder about the event as we revisit it in our minds. 

Dreams also serve to refashion our memories.  If they are especially traumatic events, dreams can serve to soften the focus and the hurt, helping us to live with the emotional damage of the memory.  For some people, especially those with post-traumatic distress disorder, dreams can sometimes do the opposite. They heighten or amplify the events – even adding details which didn’t actually exist.  Truth, therefore, becomes hard to find in the repository of memory.

Pontius Pilate, another monarchical figure, famously asked Jesus, ‘what is Truth?’.  This implied that the truth of his situation was very different from that of Jesus at the crucial moment of decision.  Pilate’s ‘truth’ was that he had enormous expectations placed upon his shoulders, from Rome, and from the Jewish leaders and people.  Pilate’s truth was that he needed to put down a potential rebellion against Rome, and therefore needed to permit the state murder of a man he considered innocent.  Pilate’s truth was that the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the one (which all Star Trek fans will appreciate).

Jesus’ truth, at that moment, was fundamentally different to Pilate’s.  His truth included his willing surrender to the hatred of the state, for a much higher purpose – the salvation of all humanity.  His truth included the certainty, by faith, that his death would not be the end of his life.  So Jesus and Pilate, experiencing the very same moment in time together, experienced the truth of that moment very differently.

We do well to remember that Pilate’s maxim, ‘what is Truth?’ applies to all human experiences.  Truth, then, it seems really is ‘in the eye of the beholder’.  Each of us experiences the world differently.  But this does not mean that all truths are either accurate, or that my perception of truth must trump everyone else’s.  Some truths contain facts which can be verifiably proven.  (I might choose to believe, in my truth, that the Earth is flat.  But that does not mean that it really is.) 

Returning to the Gospel reading, we find another example.  For both the Pharisees and the Jesus we encounter through Luke’s eyes, the Devil (or Beelzebub) was an objective truth.  Their argument centred around the Devil’s involvement or otherwise in the casting out of demons.  The existence of the Devil was not in doubt, within either of their truths.  But for us, as modern day readers, our truth will probably include a great deal of scepticism about whether or not the Devil actually exists.   Many of the diseases which Jesus cured, once attributed to demonic possession, we now know to be caused by scientifically-understood processes. 

And so, we find, that the way we read the Bible is very different to how, say, the first Christians would have read it.  Our world, and therefore our truth, is different to theirs.  Which means that we must approach the Bible always in humility, and with wisdom.  We must seek to understand the truth positions of the people in each story, as well as the writer of each story.  And then we must place that story within our own truth – and learn from it what we may. 

If we could truly grasp the importance of this revelation, the world would be a very different place.  Social media, and the newspapers (and this week, Good Morning Britain) are full of people who want to loudly proclaim that their truth is the only one that matters.  But actually, if we were ALL more keen to listen to the truth of others, and less keen on megaphoning our truth, the world would be a much kinder, more compassionate place.  It would be a place in which we offer forgiveness before judgment, love and understanding before hatred and recrimination.  It would be a world in which the Kingdom begins to come on earth as it is in heaven.






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