What is truth?
This final question from Pilate at Jesus’s trial before him in the Roman Praetoriumm lingers in the air for me each time I hear John’s passion narrative. The sound of the tenor’s voice pierces my consciousness. Every time these words are uttered I am taken back and left to ponder this question, “ What is Truth?”
WE want to hear Pilate’s question as a philosophical one, an ultimate question. What is truth? Perhaps this is who we have been taught to hear it. Our life of faith is about truth. Jesus promised that we would know the truth and the truth would make us free. Jesus’ words to Pilate which immediately preceding Pilate’s response can lead us to this conclusion as well.
It may be that we hear Pilate’s question this way because of our own need for truth. In the continued downward spiral rooted in post-modern relativism those of us who are not convinced by that project, long for the truth that is truly true. We have had enough of the relative truth’s that make up of so much modern parlance epitomized by statements such as “Well, that may be your truth but MY truth is…..”. WE are unwilling to stop short, to settle for a relative truth because as we know that just as according to blessed Anselm’s proof of the existence of God that God is the greatest being that can be conceived of and therefore must exist, so we who can conceive a truth that is greater than and embodies all the lesser truths therefore believe that Truth, the truth with a capital T, the Truth must exist as well.
But what if that is not how Pilate said it. What if it was not “What is truth?”, a question for the ages, but “what is truth?”, a dismissive response, what’s truth, truth smuth, if you will. It is certainly possible. Pilate’s later actions show he cared little for the truth. He choose the expedient rather than the right. He found no crime in Jesus, yet Pilate condemned an innocent man to quiet the crowd, pleasing the local authorities and seeking to secure that the status quo of Roman domination enforcing a brutal Pax Romana he was charged with maintaining would remain in effect.
Pilate is not the only one guilty of this. The Sanhedrin accuse Jesus of being a criminal but in this Gospel make no specific accusation to prove their allegation. They simply said, “if he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over. They need this Jesus gone, he threatens the life for which they have settled, he threatens their security and they will do what it takes to make it happen. Peter out of fear for his own life denies he knows Jesus not once but three times. Every one of them sacrifices the truth for the expediency of saving life as they know it or in Peter’s case at least as they are willing to accept it. The crowd clamoring for Jesus’s death does the same.
It would be easy for us to condemn Pilate, the Sanhedrin, Peter and the crowd. Such is the nature of our sinfulness. It is always easier to see the speck in the others eye rather than the log in our own. If we are honest with ourselves, we know we have done the same and still do. if I am honest with myself, I know I have done the same and still do. Such is the weight of sin that clings so closely, such is the power of denial that keeps us from hearing and acting on God’s urgent call to embrace the truth about God and ourselves and wholly, fully give ourselves to him. We know all too well the truth of the words we will sing later in this liturgy
”Who was the guilty who brought this upon thee
Alas my treason Jesus hast undone thee.
Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.
These words accurately describe a truth of this day. But that is not all of it.
The truth and reality of our sin is subsumed, is overcome, is swallowed up by a greater truth, the truth we know through faith, the truth we were reminded of Sunday in Fr. Mathew’s homily that God required of himself that which he did not require of humanity.
A friend of mine describes the Truth of this day as follows:
“This day, this hour, is the pivot of the universe, the still point around which everything is turned upside-down; our Judge is judged in our place; our prophet, priest and king is lifted up from the earth, and he is drawing the whole world to himself; the God who spoke the word of creation speaks one decisive word to sin, death and the devil: NO”……. And the “NO” that echoes today in the desolate silence divides what has been from what will be. It wasn’t God’s first world to humanity and it isn’t his last either. In the meantime we wait but not as those without hope. Today, God says, ”NO” to everything that separates us from him, but only because God also says, “yes” to everything that reconciles us to him.” (The Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade)
The truth of this day is that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That, “God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17.) It is this truth that we proclaim as we behold the wood of cross, as we make our way forward in reverence and adoration.
This truth is ours by grace through faith, by the Holy Spirt who has called us through the Gospel, through the love of the Father who loves us beyond all measure.
Thanks be to God. We know the truth and it sets us free.