Lesson 4: Truth in the Gospel according to St. John

Trump is Telling the TruthIt does not take long to see that John’s Gospel speaks directly to our situation. In one of its critical scenes (John 18), Jesus and Pontius Pilate face off over the definition of truth. The confrontation could have taken place in our own White House. Pilate asks Jesus if he is a threat to his authority. That, after all, is what a King of the Jews would be. Jesus assures him he is not interested in overthrowing his government. “You don’t see any army, do you?” He then goes on to explain he is a teacher of truth, and Pilate, perhaps with a laugh, responds cynically, “What is truth?”

Wham! We are right in the middle of our present debate about fake news. Pilate is claiming truth is whatever Rome tells us is true. Those who have power define truth for the rest of us. Jesus rejects this way of thinking, claiming the truth he speaks and lives is embedded in creation. It endures even if Pilate kills him.

The irony of the situation is caught when we remember Jesus declared in the 14th chapter, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” That means Pilate is pompously asserting that any sophisticated person knows there is nothing like truth– at the very moment Truth is standing right there in front of him.

Sadly, we too often reduce the meaning of this “I Am” passage to an ultimatum about believing in Jesus being the only way you are going to get into heaven after death. If you take a little time to appreciate the context of the passage and the fact that the three words are meant to be read together, you soon realize Jesus is talking about truth as a way of living in harmony with God who establishes what is true and false. Jesus sees things from the perspective of the Father who made them. We are able to discern truth all around us, if we see things like Jesus sees them. In other words, Jesus’ claim to be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” is primarily an offer to show us how to live to the fullest, now as well as in the future.

That’s why he declares in chapter 8 that truth sets us free to enjoy real life at its deepest levels. Truth telling is creative; lying is self-destructive. It is also why the magnificent prologue to the Gospel maintains that Jesus can bring blessing and truth, because he is the living Word by which God made everything and through which he is still creating.

Again we have to be careful that we do not reduce this concept of truth to something experienced and then recorded in stone 2000 years ago. At John’s Last Supper, Jesus promises his followers that they can continue to share his spirit even after his death. It’s significant that he continually speaks of this as the Spirit of Truth that brings everlasting peace. I take this to mean that the search for truth is an ongoing conversation in which we humbly participate.

However, we still have not defined the central characteristic of John’s understanding about truth. The other theme found throughout his writing is love, which John presents as the exact opposite of Pilate’s power. In the Gospel, Jesus promises you find truth when you love each other as he loves you. In his letters, John writes you have not yet found truth, if you fail to see your sin, if you cannot love other people, if you still fear God will punish you, or if you refuse to recognize Jesus is the Christ who reveals God’s truth. In the beautiful 4th chapter, John writes that you will never be afraid to tell the truth if you have faith that “God is love.” Paul shares this thought when he says that Christians speak the truth in love.

Once again, I began writing this lesson supposing it would be an abstract examination of a biblical teaching and found myself marveling over and over how much our leaders echo Pilate’s thoughts and actions. Pilate for all his bravado about having the power to define truth in this situation comes off as a buffoon. He pretends to value the voice of the people; then tries to wash his hands of what they want. He mocks the people and Jesus by repeatedly presenting our Lord as the King of the Jews, even placing it on a sign at the execution, inadvertently proclaiming the truth in spite of himself. He tries to deny any accountability for his actions, but Christians weekly assert that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

John’s description of truth gives us hope in these dark days. It reminds us truth is of God and endures beyond all human efforts to deny it. Finally, I’d like recommend you watch Kerry Walter’s video. Father Kerry offers an amazingly complete and profound picture of Christian love in just 10 minutes. It complements this lesson on truth perfectly.

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. John Myers says:

    What an inspiring lesson. I disagree with nothing said. The confrontation and irony over truth that plays out between Jesus and Pilate is fascinating. It reminds me so much of what we see today. What passes for truth in our news outlets is a simple and condescending pander. Much is not news, it is not truth, it is simply entertainment at best and agenda driven propaganda at worst. There are truthful and compelling stories, but you must look for them. Christ’s truth is in all of us – we know it and we can feel it. We know when we do something wrong. Even Pilate knew it and could feel it. The man who would condemn Christ and wash his hands of it tried desperately to find a way out. And, yes, I agree – our leaders as Pilate is probably right. They also know what is right and do not do it, then look for excuses, find someone else to blame, and walk away with their earthly treasures as they point to man’s law as justification. Shame on them, and shame on us for allowing it to continue.

  2. Fr. Jude says:

    I’m still mulling over the last lesson, in particular, the concern to try to understand the “average” Trump voter. I had some (ok, VERY little, to tell the truth) remorse over my earlier assessment. Though I still find myself just utterly dumbfounded regarding what I’ve seen and heard articulated so far by the So-Called President’s supporters regarding their vote.

    So, I thought I’d take another stab at it this time around, substituting Pilate for the aforementioned voting cadre. Seems as though Pilate is entitled to some attempt to understand where he’s coming from.

    (Though the greater irony in all this is that this account of the encounter in John’s Gospel is, of course, considered, at best, a “truthful fiction” since there are no transcripts or other historically verifiable documentation.)

    Pilate’s the dutiful political operative, which means he’s always between the rock and the hard place.

    On the one hand, he’s the Empire’s man in Palestine and, as such, answers to Roman authority. (Good luck discerning THE TRUTH in that hot mess, especially on the cusp of the Common Era.) But on the other hand, he’s got to stay on top of a majority-Jewish population with its own authority structure, with which he has some kind of working relation. But the internal struggles among the Jews, i.e. pressure from the zealot/radical fringe, render that relationship problematic, to say the least.

    On any given day, he’s got to squash the odd riot here on there, bag the troublemaking zealot and also keep a lid on the average crime rate, but he can’t overplay his hand: Rome would not be happy to get a report that the Roman garrison in Jerusalem is holded up under siege by the Jewish rabble.

    Now here’s yet another nutcase, presented with accusations of claiming to be the return(AGAIN?) of the Davidic monarch. But the Jewish power brokers seem to be awfully insistent that this one should be terminated with extreme prejudice. Assurances have been given that the rabble will not bat an eye.

    So what’s a Pilate to do? Is he being played by that lard-ass Caiaphas: he hangs this Jesus and all hell breaks loose during Passover? Or is it just that the Pharisees are bugged by the rumors coming in from the outlands; that this Jesus has been making them look bad all over Judea and now he’s here in Jerusalem? AND now they want Pilate to do them a favor and take out their trash?

    “What is The Truth?” I can hear the world-weariness in his voice. The cynicism. Even as he’s trying to parse out the angles in this set-up, this smart-ass Jew is “playing” him. Answering a question with another question! Well, thinks Pilate, I can play that game, too. Oh, what the hell: damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

    (Hey, isn’t John supposed to be the “Love” Gospel? How come Pilate doesn’t get some? He’s not even allowed to be the proper villain, but just a lackey fall-guy, a patsy for the High Priest. Say, isn’t that Anti-Semitism I see lurking in the shadows there in the praetorium? I’ll bet Chrysostom and Luther spotted him right off. Isn’t that what Al Gore called “inconvenient Truth?”)

    • Fr. Jude says:

      (ummm…I think the expression I was going for in the sixth paragraph above is “holed up,” as in trapped in a little hidey-hole, like Saddam Hussein at the end. “Holded up” – where that came from, I have no idea. Or maybe I’ve stumbled upon the perfect vehicle for “fake news” – “fake English.”)


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