Pilate asked Jesus, “What is TRUTH?” (John 18:38), and the silent reply is deafening.
Don’t you wish Jesus had given Pilate an answer? Perhaps a six-point analysis complete with a poem, a joke, and a prayer? What do you do with that passage sooooooo pregnant with meaning? What does your pastor say? Has he preached on it? What does your church say? Has the council handed down a summary?
By the way, I absolutely hate those Bible studies where a handful of devotees sit around and discuss “what this [or that] passage means to you”. Let’s call the bluff on that. It is just a baptized version of “your truth/my truth”, but it is not THE TRUTH. I am not interested in that kind of exchange. Let’s see if we can get to the truth on Truth.
Am I saying that Truth is not relative?
No. I am not saying that. In my view, Truth is relative, but that does not mean anything goes. I say Truth is relative to God – to love – and to know Truth, you must love Truth. And loving implies relativity. But that is to go too far down one of the more philosophical alleys than I wish to take this post. If you want to discuss that further with me, ask, and I will go there another time.
In my years poring over the offerings of N.T. Wright, and some of the teachers influencing him as well (not the least R. Horsely), I have a rich new perspective on the loaded meaning of the phrases “Kingdom of God”, “Kingdom of Heaven”, and the Bible’s pitting of God’s Kingdom over against wayward humanity’s empires. Thus, when I read the passage in John 18, I am inclined to see it as one of those places where the juxtaposition of the two come into sharp focus. Jesus is on trial before the Roman Imperial official facing the seditious charge of claiming (without Rome’s authorization) to be King. This King on trial is the rightful King facing a representative from the sham empire, and he claims (vs. 37) that the people “of the Truth” listen to his voice – suggesting they are the true subjects of the true Authority.
Pilate then asks the question that the Bible leaves unanswered hanging there pregnant with meaning and haunting the imagination of empire and Truth seekers alike. The imperial representative judging this defendant is reduced to asking “What is Truth?” and thus demonstrating that he does not know. Meanwhile, the whole exchange sets forth the notion that one of the world orders here has the corner on Truth while the other is consumed by its own lie.
Kingdom vs. empire: Two alternative ways of ordering the world – of world-making. The Creator sets the agenda for the creation. God, who made the universe and all therein is the rightful order-er, but in order for pagan empire to compete in the world-ordering business, it must offer plausible alternative explanation(s) for the world’s origin and existence, thus securing it’s imagined right to bring order to it. The problem is that empire thus embraces and propagates a lie.
That last paragraph is a mouthful, and it’s pretty abstract. Let’s see if we can break it down in more chewable language….
As we all know: Once you tell a lie, you must tell another to cover up the first, and then another and another to cover for the next. And it goes on and on and on.
We live in a world of lies. The Truth is there, just beneath the surface, but the lies keep blurring our focus… they keep knocking us off balance. It is easy to succumb to the lie. The problem is that we want to believe the lie. At it’s core, the Roman Empire’s lie was: Caesar is Lord. Meanwhile the Truth was: Jesus is Lord.
How does that play in today’s world?
Let’s just look at the world of commerce a moment. It is a world of our own creation. Consider this: In six days of creation, God did not make a single dime – not even a penny. No dollars, rubles, or yen. But we cannot imagine a life in which money does not make the world go round. Can you? How did we get here? The first six days of creation and no one has a dime to their name. And no, they weren’t carrying salt around in their pockets either. (They were naked and had no pockets – just for starts!)
Oh! And by the way, God said it was good! And then on the seventh day he rested! It was his world; he made it; he ordered it; it worked a certain kind of way – and that way was GOOD!
But we live in a world where children starve to death, where women are raped, where men murder one another. And I am not saying commerce, or money, caused all of this, but I am saying that in our rush to make order of our own, we created a god (Mammon) and then seek our salvation in him for all we are worth! But that is a lie. It is not the Truth.
But this stuff is hard to see. It’s like reading John 18:38 and coming to Pilate’s question and fumbling for the answer. It would be easy to gloss over the deafening silence and say, Jesus is the Truth – after all he says even in the same Gospel Account, “I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life…” (John 14:6). And there is nothing wrong with that answer, except that it is not actually answering Pilate’s question. Somehow we are accustomed to glossing, blurring, and stumbling off balance – just a little. The Truth can be hard to see – most likely because we do not really want to see it. Our own denial is the problem. And empire, Mammon, and commerce capitalize on our denial.
The Customer Is Always Right.
Let me give an example from my own experience. I bet you will recognize it in your own life too. I worked in retail for several years (a Bible bookstore no less). And there is an unwritten rule that everyone in the game knows: The customer is always _____.
Do you really not know what goes in that blank?
Of course you do.
Keep that customer happy. He/she is always right. Even when they are wrong, they are right.
Really? Can that actually be true? Is there never a time when the customer is actually wrong? Well… okay… a customer can be wrong some of the time, but as a retailer you must NEVER suggest that. You must dance around that notion for all you are worth, because in order for our life in this world of our making to continue, we want this customer to be happy and satisfied so that they return again.
Really? Do you hang out with friends who are actually wrong about important matters and dance that dance with them at all costs? No. Only customers. We have falling outs with our friends, family, and spouses ALL THE TIME! We get divorced at the drop of a hat! Rip a home into bits when our loved ones wrong us. But only in extreme circumstances will we shun a customer who holds the promise of bringing us more Mammon next time too – PLEASE TELL YOUR FRIENDS ABOUT US IF YOU ARE SATISFIED: TELL US IF YOU ARE NOT! After all, our lives depend on it.
And thus we have a first lie which needs to be covered by a second and a third and so on. In fact, we need to blur the customer’s vision and keep them off balance as much as possible so that we can make them feel like they are always right, always in charge, meanwhile we get deeper into their pockets for that Mammon! You know: Mark up prices on these items for six weeks, then have a “sale” at prices slashed almost down to market value. The customer won’t notice that we ripped them off; meanwhile we tell them they are always right! And these fools (these customers) want to believe they are always right. This world of our own making feels good – it almost feels true. But it is filled with lies.
The Crooked Toothbrush.
Have you ever been sold a toothbrush? I remember growing up being told on the TV (a great source of “truth” btw) that I needed a toothbrush that was “angled like a dental instrument”. So, I spent more money on a stupid stick with bristles that had a crook in it!
A crook in it!
I could have just tilted the stupid thing a bit more and got the same angle for 50 cents less! But no… I thought I needed the REACH toothbrush to reach those hard to reach places. But that was years ago. Now I have a new toothbrush with electric bristles that swish side to side instead of in a circle. But I almost did not notice that there is no angle in it. Hmm… I must be missing some hard to reach places. Or maybe I am just missing the Truth.
How about dog food? Ever see a dog food commercial on TV that tells you how they serve only the prime cut of meat instead of all that filler the other brands use? Yeah, and with a side of vegetables too! But you know who is not watching the ad? My dog. And for that matter, when I eat a juicy steak off the grill, I cut the fatty edges and the bones off. I eat the prime cut and give the scraps to my dog who absolutely loves those scraps and will eat them up while ignoring the Purina Dog Chow in the bowl with my left overs! But I am saturated with such lies coming from my TV, and it actually affects the way I spend my Mammon!
But perhaps my favorite ad is from Olive Garden. The ad doesn’t run any more, but they used to have the slogan that said, “When you’re here, you’re family”. Really? That sounds almost like home! And when I go home, we usually eat – together. It’s part of how families celebrate family! But when I am home and we eat together, you know what never happens? Dad never whips out a calculator and tallies up my bill; he never expects a gratuity. But he sure is glad to see the kids! But Olive Garden would have you think that eating in their find establishment makes you family. But that is a lie. They expect you to pay and leave gratuity. And they don’t especially want to deal with your kids.
And this is the atmosphere of the world of commerce. It is the air we breath. It is second nature to hear these messages dozens of times a day on the TV, the radio, the internet – even the stupid gas pumps crank this garbage out for you while you fill up the car! And over time, the loyalty you share with Olive Garden is more substantive than what you share with your flesh-n-blood family!
Oh? You think not? How many times have you been divorced? Is your child support caught up? How about your tab at Olive Garden? Still think this stuff has no meaning for your Bible study?
What is Truth?
That is an ironic question for Pilate to ask. And like the world of commerce, ruled as it is by Mammon, Pilate functions, in the Gospel narrative, as a representative of Rome’s world-making power. Rome stopped all the wars in the whole known world for forty years! That is a fact most modern people do not know. Think of it. No war – anywhere!
Rome called it Pax. It was the Roman word for Peace. But it was peace won with the edge of the sword.
The Jews had a word for peace too. Their word was Shalom. But Shalom and Pax were not the same thing. Pax was a powerful force, to be sure, but it was merely the absence of conflict. Shalom is that and sooooooo much more. Shalom also means the presence of harmony. The absence of conflict was a parody of Shalom. And though Rome enforced a Pax over the world it ordered, the fear and hate were seething beneath the surface. Rome never really brought peace, not True Peace, not Shalom. But that did not stop them from dubbing the emperor, not only “Lord” and “Savior”, but also “Prince of Peace”.
Augustus was called “Prince of Peace”, but that was actually a lie. It was what empire did to blur the focus, keep people just a bit off balance, and even make them want it to be true. But Rome was ordering the world – even making a world – out of lies. And Pilate, her representative on the scene the day God (the Creator of all) sent Jesus to wage Shalom, asked the defendant in his court, “What is Truth?”, and we should take note.
We Christians live in a world of our culture’s making. Our culture, everything from commerce, Mammon, flag-n-apple pie, is setting out to order our world. It even claims a different story of origin! (This is why evolution is the curriculum in your government mandated schools.) And if you think you are not affected by this stuff, think again! How many times have you been divorced? Is your child support caught up? When was the last time you looked at porn? How much money did you spend on vacation last summer? How much did you give to the poor? Do you really think the culture has not affected your life? Deeply?
But the world, despite itself, is asking you: What is Truth?
And you, as Jesus’s representative on the scene this day, are either showing the Truth or imbibing in the lie. We need to be counter-cultural, not going with the flow.
I hope you will think about it.