4 Epiphany, Year A
4 Epiphany, Year A
According to the Jewish rabbis: “The world is established on three principles: truth, justice, and peace.” (Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:18) In Psalm 15 today, as well as our passage from Micah and the gospel Beatitudes; we are given important examples of all three of these principles. The common thread in today’s psalm, first lesson and gospel is: those who worship God in truth will live their lives in such a way that their words and actions complement one another. What one says is in harmony with what one does. There is no separation of faith and life—faith and ethics go hand-in-hand. As people of faith, we are privileged people because God loves, forgives, saves and blesses us so richly. However, in response to God, we are given responsibilities in the way that we live our lives. Today the psalmist describes the responsibilities of those who desire to be true worshippers of God and live under the power and grace of God’s truth.
As I read these responsibilities in our psalm, it struck me that there is quite a lot of emphasis on how and what we speak. As you all know, words are powerful. In fact, they are so powerful that they can create and give life, or destroy and kill. Our psalmist emphasises how important it is that our words speak the truth.
In today’s world, it seems that more and more people have problems speaking the truth. It was Malcolm Muggeridge who once said that the modern mass media is one of the most dangerous forms of contemporary evil because it calls the truth a lie and the lie a truth. Moreover, it does so in very attractive marketing packages—making it irresistible for the vast majority of citizens. This is rather ironic, since Muggeridge himself made a living as a journalist for many years. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of truth in Muggeridge’s critique of the media—for example, one merely has to watch some of the television commercials to see how truth is exaggerated and distorted, yet wrapped in very entertaining, glitzy, seductive packages designed to deceive people into believing that what is being advertised is true. Notice too that such commercials are often run over and over again—ad nausea, as a propaganda brainwashing technique to pressure people into buying the product. Moreover, beyond that, maybe you’ve noticed too how often commercials are run during a program. Sometimes it is more accurate to say: “We interrupt the commercials for a brief message from the program!”
In today’s world, speaking the truth is increasingly becoming more of a challenge. For example, one of the most popular headline news stories of late is that of the Enron corporation. This is being regarded as the largest corporate bankruptcy in American history. At the root of it all, is the corporation’s senior executive officers—who publicly lied to their employees; telling them to invest their money into the corporation, while the senior executive knew that Enron was in serious trouble. The senior executives got out while the getting was good, and made money on their investments—but abandoned their employees, some of whom have lost most, if not all of their retirement investments. To make matters even worse, it appears that accountants were hired to “doctor up” the books, and some of the company’s records have allegedly been shredded. One wonders what was going on inside the minds and souls of these senior executives, that they believed their sins would not find them out? It may take time, but eventually, the truth always comes out.
Coming back to our psalm, the writer states that another responsibility in our speaking if we are to worship God in truth is this: “do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbours.” In other words, do not gossip; do not bear false witness against your neighbour. How many people’s lives have suffered severely because of false, distorted information and gossip? How many people have lost their jobs due to others spreading false rumours and gossip? How many relationships have been destroyed because false witnessing and gossip have shattered the level of trust and confidentiality?
Hannah More was a godly woman, best known for her part in the formation of the Religious Tract Society.
She used to have a great way of dealing with gossips. Whenever anyone told her an unkind story about a neighbour, she would say, “Come with me now, and we’ll go and ask the person if this is true.”
The gossip would be appalled at the idea. “I’d rather not—there might be some mistake after all.”
But Hannah More would always insist on going to see the person who had been slandered—and taking the gossip with her. That put a stop to a lot of loose talk! 1
Why is it that even Christian people in the church can get caught up in the sin of trying to build themselves up by tearing others down with slander and gossip? Do they think that God is pleased with their behaviour? Do they think that this is a loving behaviour, which Jesus would approve of or bless them for? No one that I’m aware of ever received such approval or blessing. If we truly love God, then we will love our neighbour.
Another way of being responsible people of God, according to the psalmist, is to be one: “who stand(s) by their oath even to their hurt.” This means keeping one’s promise, no matter how much it may cost us personally.
(The story is told): In a faraway place and a long-ago time, there was once a rich man who gave all his money to the poor, joined a band of hermits, and went to live with them in the desert and worship God.
One day the man was sent to town with another hermit to sell two donkeys that had grown old and could no longer carry their burdens. He went and stood in the marketplace, where shoppers looking for donkeys came to ask if his were worth buying. “If they were worth buying, do you think we’d be selling them?” he replied.
“And why do they have such ragged backs and tails?” he was asked.
“Because they’re old and stubborn,” he said. “We have to pull their tails and thrash them to make them move.”
“Since there were no buyers for the donkeys, the man returned with them to the desert, where his companion told the other hermits what had happened. All of them demanded to know why he had frightened the buyers away. “Do you imagine for a moment,” he answered, “that I left home and gave everything away, all my camels and cattle and sheep and goats, in order to make a liar of myself for the sake of two old donkeys?” 2
So too, like the rich man in this story, we are called to tell the truth and keep our promise, even if that involves making sacrifices. When we look at the life of Jesus, we see the perfect example of how truth is spoken and promises are kept. He had prepared his disciples ahead of time by speaking three times about his suffering and death; and when the time came, he carried through by keeping his promises and willingly gave up his life; making the ultimate sacrifice for you, me and all of humankind by dying on the cross. May we all be inspired to follow his perfect example to worship God by living lives under the power of his grace and truth, which set us free.