The Bible and Time Magazine
July 1, 2001
Matthew 5:33-37 The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
We have two very familiar readings today, and both invite your participation. Turn please to page 731, where you will find a responsive reading from Psalm 19. This ancient song tells us of two ways that God is made known to us. First, we see God in the wonders of creation: The heavens are telling the glory of God. And then in the second stanza the psalmist focuses on the law or commandments of God. We learn from the creation that God is glorious and mighty - beyond any words, says the psalmist. And we learn from the law - the "written Word" how such a God would have us live.
After we have read the Psalm we need to turn back to number 185 to find
the second reading, a passage we know as "The Beatitudes." Here in these
words Jesus the Christ - whom we call the Living Word - tells us more
about the sort of people God calls us to be. Again, this will be read
responsively. Let us listen now for the Word of God to us within these
words of Scripture.
As you know Carol and I this summer are basing our sermons on the current events of the day - at least the events that Time chooses to include. Each week we open Time and look for items that we think include some religious or moral or ethical issue. There is a lot to choose from usually. Most things that happen have something to do with right and wrong, at least - and as Christians we are concerned about that. And quite a few news items touch directly on religion. This week, for example, there is a major article about the rise and fall of Falun Gong - a religion less than ten years old - in China.
But I chose an article this week, because of an incident at the meetings we attended in Lansing, Michigan, last week. The conference was at a large convention center, with the usual large parking deck attached. We were not staying at the convention hotel, but used the parking deck each day, and the parking rates were posted at the entry. As we were leaving one afternoon we were told that you could get the parking ticket stamped at the hotel desk - and save a few bucks. So we tried that, only to learn that you had to be a hotel guest to enjoy free parking, and save a few bucks. A colleague of ours, wanting to save us a few bucks, immediately set about finding someone who WAS a guest of that hotel to ask them to take our parking ticket to have it stamped, thus saving us a few bucks. In other words, he seemed to think nothing of asking someone to, in effect, lie to the desk clerk, to, as I say, save a few bucks. Thankfully, he didn't find anyone, and we had to PAY - $2.50!
With that story in mind, listen to these words of Jesus:
"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' [That is, if you make a vow - say Yes, and swear to do something, you should do it] But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, or by the earth, or by Jerusalem. . . . [Instead] let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37)
Do you see what Jesus getting at? He is saying that you should not have to resort to "swearing" to have people believe you are telling the truth. My grandfather took this literally, and refused to take an oath in court. He insisted that he would ALWAYS tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and so didn't need to add an oath on top of his "Yeses" or "Nos." Jesus seems to agree. We ought to be the kind of people who habitually, routinely tell the truth. You remember, way back in the Bible somewhere: Thou shalt not bear false witness? (Exodus 20:16). It's one of the Ten Big Ones! "Don't tell lies," we tell our children, or at least I hope we do. It's pretty basic stuff. But here I was with my minister friend nervously watching him solicit other colleagues to, well, to lie - to save me a few bucks!
Now: my Time article for this week. It seems that a highly respected historian - historian, no less - at Mount Holyoke College - one Joseph Ellis, has been caught in a lie. Actually, quite a few lies. Not in his book on Thomas Jefferson - American Sphinx - that received the National Book Award in 1997. No, his "fabrications" were about himself, and were told as part of his class lectures. Like: that during the Vietnam war he served on the staff of General William Westmoreland, that he was a platoon leader and paratrooper in that war, that there he once witnessed "a burly comrade reading Emily Dickinson and weeping on the battlefield." [Time, July 2, page 52] Ellis used these details to spice up his class, "The Vietnam War and American Culture," but came to share them with colleagues and journalists too who did a little digging, and found that Ellis during those war years was doing graduate work at Yale, and teaching history at West Point.
Professor Ellis, of course, is "devastated" by this, and will probably lose his job over it. "Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made," he admits. And people are wondering too just what he "made up" in his writings if he didn't mind embellishing the truth in his classes.
Now, one wonders what would motivate a respected teacher - his career established, his books selling - to jeopardize everything by making outrageous, false claims that could be easily discovered. There is a lot more to the story, as always, than meets the eye. But whatever his reasons, and whatever the outcome of the incident, the story raises two issues for me.
First, I am encouraged. Encouraged? Yes, encouraged, because we are still concerned about truth. It's still important to us to distinguish truth from falsehood. That's a good thing! To hear us post-modern people speak sometimes, you'd think that we no longer see anything as "true" or "false;" that we think "truth is in the eye of the beholder alone;" that reality is so complex and our own prejudices so deep that there really is no such thing as objective truth we can agree upon. Sometimes even biblical scholars talk as though Jesus himself is so lost in time that we don't really know anything about him, and so should either give him up altogether or make him up to suit the needs of the present day. "Whatever . . . " is our only creed.
And so it's encouraging to know that historians do care about finding as close as possible the truth of the past, that they know the difference between genuine history and historical novels. Truth is still worth pursuing.
That's important to me because my faith is a faith rooted in history. It's important to me to know that there really was a man named Jesus; that we know from the Gospels - incomplete and sometimes contradictory as they are - essentially what he was about, what he taught, how he lived and died and conquered death; that his earliest followers were so convinced of the truth of this Jesus that many of them died for their beliefs, and went to their graves refusing to betray him. For Jesus was no mere clever and good teacher, a memorable storyteller of moralistic parables who in the end said not much more than that we should be good to each other, nothing really new. No, he was, for me, the Word made flesh: born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, teaching in the Galilee, dying just outside the city walls of Jerusalem, buried in Joseph's tomb. History is important to our faith.
So the story of Professor Ellis' misfortune raises a philosophical and theological issue for me - and maybe only me! But there is another issue too, more obvious, and probably much more important. It is that we need to tell the truth - always. I believe that my friend attempting to get by with just a little lie to the desk clerk, or the professor telling blatantly false stories in his class both weaken the social fabric that keeps us viable. We depend on one another to tell the truth, don't we? We expect - by and large - people not to lie to us, certainly not about the big things, like, say, your doctor telling you you have cancer when you don't, nor about the little things, like someone telling us it's sunny outside when it's raining. Can you imagine a society where we never could trust a single word anyone said? Big or small, our lies tug at the seams of our families, our church, our city, our society.
Unfortunately we live in a time when that social fabric appears to be strained. As a people we feel that we have been lied to by our leaders - you will remember Richard Nixon's famous, "I'm no crook!" And how can we forget Bill Clinton's earnest denial of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, looking straight into the camera? It seems to be expected that our politicians will not tell the whole truth, or will put such a spin on it that we wouldn't know the difference. And how refreshing it is when we see - or at least think we see - a public servant who tells us the truth.
And it seems, sometimes, to be expected that we in our personal lives can tell half-truths, or just plain falsehoods if we can gain a few bucks by it, and we don't get caught. But do you remember that "law of the Lord" we praised in today's psalm, those "decrees that are sure," the "precepts that are right," the "commandment of the Lord that is clear?" They all condemn dishonesty. They all command us tell the truth.
And those wonderful Beatitudes we read together: Blessed, or happy are the poorin spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart. And blessed too, we said, are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Surely a part of "righeousness" is truth-telling, not some of the time or most of the time, but all of the time. I have a new Beatitude: "Blessed are the truth-tellers, for while they may not reach the top of the ladder, and they may be thought of as being hopelessly idealistic, unreasonably honest, at least they who tell the truth will sleep well at night with a clear conscience."
The story goes that "Silent" Calvin Coolidge went to church one Sunday morning and returned to the White House where his wife asked him what the preacher had talked about. "Sin," said this man of few words. "Well, what did he say about it?" she asked. "He's ag'in it."
What did the preacher say here today? He said, "Tell the truth." He said we people of faith are to be people of integrity. People who when we say Yes we mean Yes, and No, we mean No. People who refuse to cut a corner to make a buck, if that cutting means cutting the truth. People who tell the truth - even when it means that we lose out - say, on a tax return or an insurance claim.
And as a church we are to be scrupulously honest in all our business dealings - meticulously truthful in dealing with even such seemingly small matters as copyright laws and software licenses. NOT because we might "get caught;" that's how 5 year-olds reason in moral matters. But simply because it is right. And because God told us so.
I told you about my grandfather who refused to swear in court. Let me close with a story about my father. A number of years before he died his sister was in very ill health, and her children were doing what families often do - disbursing her funds so as not to have to use them for nursing home care. It is a complicated moral and legal question, I know. But my parents received a small portion, and apparently Dad never felt quite right about it. A year before he died, I'm sure doing some "end of life" work, guess what he did! He wrote a check for $5,000, and sent it off to Uncle Sam - without explanation. Can you imagine the reaction of the clerk at the IRS who got his "donation?" Our inheritance went down that day; but he did what he thought was the only right and honorable thing, and Dad died with a clear conscience. And in the end, isn't that all that matters? Amen.