Tuesday 11 May 2021

Prophetic Truth


I think one of the essential things we should emphasise to children is the importance of telling the truth. The Buddha is supposed to have said that there are three things that cannot be permanently hidden, the Sun, the Moon and the truth. I think that this is one of those undeniable facts of life, the sort of fact that we might ignore at our peril like the old adage that the only inevitability is death and taxes. How important it is to tell the truth and to try to live with integrity. It is so important not only for us as individuals, at the individual, personal level but it is important in every field of human activity, in all organs of government and in every institution of business, religion and charity and political activity. Without the perception of truthfulness and integrity individuals lose respect and organisations become damaged and can ultimately die. We place such an importance on telling the truth and yet how often do we see the failure of truth, the betrayal of trust, financial shenanigans, the cover-ups that go right to the top of the political system even aided and abetted by Prime Minister's as official records years after the events reveal and are made public. We have to ask, as we should where the moral compass is and what is driving this dishonesty, we have to ask the pertinent question - why? And in whose interest this level of corruption is working?

We tell children always to tell the truth but somehow, I can't help thinking that this truthful childlike quality we try to encourage is not really in the more sophisticated world of the adult the touchstone for all our relationships, as it should be. As we 'grow up' it seems that we are expected to accept that with a nod and a wink that we can subvert a promise or a contract because after all; that's the real world that’s the world we supposedly we live in. And besides, that kind of dishonesty is what everybody else is doing or going along with and so we tell ourselves that at some level that it's OK to turn a blind eye to dishonesty. 

I can't help but think that story of The Emperor's New Clothes should not remain in the primary school but rather that it should be elevated to the level of a religious parable and so we can say that the Kingdom of Heaven can be likened to the child who declared in spite of the proclamations of the government, the press (and to bring it up to date, the MSM) in spite of all this, the the Emperor was indeed as naked as the day that he was born. 

Indeed, the unexpected emergence of such compelling and innocent honesty, in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes became in fact, a catalyst for a re-wakening in the consciousness of the people, the government and the Emperor. Such childlike honesty deflated the tyranny of ego and prepared the way for humility and awareness. If the Kingdom of Heaven is to come to earth, this kingdom which is 'righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' then it must be based on truth.

In the Gospel of Matthew (21) we can recall the story of Jesus who overthrew the money changers in the Temple but in the violence of this scene we overlook the children who were crying their support, "Hosanna to the son of David", they shouted and cheered. And when chief priests and the scribes saw and heard this, they rebuked Jesus who in response reminded them of the Scriptures (Psalm 8) "Did you never read, 'Out of the mouths of babes of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise.' Here Jesus had committed a revolutionary act by overturning the moneychanger's tables; he had struck at the heart of economic injustice, for he said that the house of prayer had become a den of robbers. The writer George Orwell once said that "In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act." This revolutionary act, as we know led to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, but as someone else once observed, you can kill the revolutionary but you can't kill the revolution.

We may have heard the phrase 'speaking truth to power' - 'speak truth to power' this phrase is actually credited to an American civil rights leader of the 1950s: Bayard Rustin, and not necessarily the Quakers. But this speaking truth to power is an inspiring phrase because it is suggestive of authority, that the power of the truth is the only way to live it suggests law, the law as truth, a way of living based on experience and what actually works. If we look at the book of Proverbs, we can read the collective experience of an ancient, Semitic people who in a series of pithy adages, if you like, have recorded their collective wisdom, a wisdom that doubtless informed their laws and ethics e.g.


Proverbs 16:16-21                                    New Living Translation               

How much better to get wisdom than gold, and good judgment than silver!

The path of the virtuous leads away from evil;whoever follows that path is safe.

Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall.

Better to live humbly with the poor than to share plunder with the proud.

 Those who listen to instruction will prosper; those who trust the Lord will be joyful.

The wise are known for their understanding, and pleasant words are persuasive.

These ancient laws appear hard and severe and when we read such law in the book of Leviticus, for example, we can see that there can be terrible retribution for those who have transgressed. In today's easier times and more enlightened days the laws and ethics appear to be unreasonable and barbaric. But in primitive and uncertain times when the very survival of the Israelites as a people was uncertain a code for living was required and so this need, this requirement found its expression in the worship of the God of Israel, the one true God and the injunction was that they should observe this law that they might grow and prosper in the promised land to which they were going.

This Mosaic law has also a benign and generous dimension for its moral code reminds the people of Israel that they should not take advantage of foreigners that live amongst them, that they should treat them like native-born Israelites, and that they should love these foreigners just as much as they the Jews love themselves. They, the Israelites are brought to mind of their previous existence as foreign workers or slaves before they were delivered out of Egypt by God before they obtained their freedom. This particular text in the book of Deuteronomy makes reference to the bad old days in Egypt reminding the Israelites of what it's like to be in need, to be poor as they were, and to be oppressed as they were, and now, the law  requires them to empathise with the stranger with the refugee and to show mercy and compassion as well as hospitality.

Deuteronomy 24:19-22             New LivingTranslation                                  

“When you are harvesting your crops and forget to bring in a bundle of grain from your field, don’t go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all you do. When you beat the olives from your olive trees, don’t go over the boughs twice. Leave the remaining olives for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. When you gather the grapes in your vineyard, don’t glean the vines after they are picked. Leave the remaining grapes for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt. That is why I am giving you this command. 

All of this comes from the Mosaic Law, the Law of Moses spread throughout the books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy which of course includes the Ten Commandments found in Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20. These laws are therefore not simply a moral abstract but ethics and religious requirement aimed at creating social responsibility and social coherence. But as the twelve tribes of Israel move from their nomadic lifestyle and embrace a more agrarian society, we see how the history of the Jews unfolds as it continues through the pages of the Bible. As the way of life became more settled and food production becomes more reliable then, the social structures alter and those that have become wealthy and by definition more powerful no longer feel the need to conform to the same religious and moral code that once held their ancestors together as a people. As the new society gives way to the old the disparities in wealth and power become ever pronounced and typically those who are able to amass such wealth feel that they are no longer held by the same ties of kinship and obligation begin to exploit the weaker and more vulnerable.

This move into wealth and prosperity for the higher echelons was accompanied according to Jewish Biblical history either by a turn to the pagan religions of the Canaanites or a simply by an adherence to the worship of God which is merely outwardly ritualistic and formal. It is under circumstance such as these that Prophets emerge striding on to the scene, calling the Israelites back to their true religion, to their covenanted relationship with God. One such Old Testament prophet was Amos he lived at a time when Israel was enjoying great prosperity, in the 7th century BC, but Israel had also become corrupt and decadent. His truth was not welcome when he said that the offerings and the sacrifices to God were no longer acceptable and that in fact the assemblies and religious assemblies had become despicable in the eyes of God. Such religious practice and events had merely become opportunities for hypocrisy and displays of high status at a time when the poor were being sold into slavery, bribery was common place and no justice could be obtained in the courts. Amos prophesying for God said " I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins". Here in Amos' preaching he makes the case that there can be no division between social justice and a right relationship with God as he says: "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"

 Amos 5:21-24                                         New Living Translation

I hate all your show and pretence—

the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.

I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.

I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.

Away with your noisy hymns of praise!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,

an endless river of righteous living.

The words of Amos were of course unwelcome to the ruling elites and the wealthy such truth cutting like a sword and exposing the contradictions and the lack of equality had an unsettling effect so much that Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to the king, to King Jeroboam that Amaziah was raising a conspiracy in the very heart of Israel, he said, "The land cannot bear all his words" The land cannot bear all his words. How hard it is to hear the truth and again we are reminded of George Orwell's words, "In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Not only can telling the truth be a revolutionary act but it often requires great courage to do it but it can also cost you your life. We often recall the death of John the Baptist that begins with Herod's birthday, an occasion on which the daughter of Herodias danced before him pleasing him so much that he publicly asked her to choose any gift he could give her. The girl asked her Mother, Herod's wife, Herodias, what she should ask for and her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. This was not merely a passing whim on behalf of Herodias but it stemmed from her deep resentment against John because he knew that Herod had married her, the wife of his brother, Philip and John had publicly preached that it was not lawful for him to do so. 

Galatians 5:13-15          New Living Translation  

For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.

We teach children to tell the truth and so we should. But finally, we should understand that there is another component in the equation and that is love. Truth and love go together and, in this respect, it is the ultimate message as St Paul, in his letter to the Galatians says, "The only thing that counts is faith in active love" He wrote, "You my friends were called to be free people; only do not turn your freedom into licence for your lower nature, but be servants to one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' But if you go on fighting one another, tooth and nail, all you can expect is mutual destruction. I mean this: if you are guided by the Spirit, you will not fulfil the desires of your lower nature." Let us live in the spirit of the Prophets, speaking the truth in love and with courage.

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