GRASPED BY THE TRUTH
"You desire truth in the inward being."
"For this I was born, and for this I came into the world. to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?"
I unexpectedly ended up in hospital last Friday and Saturday with a nasty stomach bug. Dr. du Toit told me that I was seriously ill, and I certainly felt seriously so! But medical skill and wifely care has helped me onto my feet again. And in the process I met a splendid nurse who looked after me very well. His name was Emeth Madlauzi, a striking figure with a long pony-tail and dressed in an immaculate blue uniform. Efficient and professional, pleasant and friendly, and obviously enjoying his work. He told me he was born in Murraysburg in the Karoo, a small town near Beaufort West. I asked him how he got his name "Emeth." He told me that his mother had a very sickly daughter before he was born, and that the doctor who looked after her very kindly had the name "Emeth." He did not know what it meant, so I told him it was Hebrew for "truth," and I surmised that the doctor must have been Jewish. The story of that doctor's care for his mother and sister, which led to his name, must have left a deep impression on Emeth, and perhaps was the reason he himself became a nurse. And, I think a clue to the meaning of truth itself lies in the story. For truth is not simply something we believe but something that grasps us, something that we seek to embody. "You desire truth in the inward being," says the Psalmist.
"What is truth?" This question which Pilate asks Jesus before condemning him to death, is fundamental to John's gospel. It is in John that we read that truth came into the world in Jesus, and that Jesus is, himself, "the truth." So it is not surprising that at the final moment before Pilate condemns Jesus to death, Jesus says: "For this I was born and for this I came into the world. to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." It is in response to this that Pilate asks him, but "What is truth?" He was not asking about scientific truth, or historical truth, or the truth about the charges laid against Jesus; his question went much deeper, it was about the meaning of life. A question asked long before Pilate came on the scene, and one that has resounded through the centuries ever since.
There have been many answers given, for every philosophy, every religion, every ideology is guided by some conviction that its adherents claim is the truth about the meaning of life. Even those who say that there is "no truth," that there is no meaning to life, are making a truth-claim, because for them the truth is that there is none! The truth, many people believe, is relative and subjective, it is what you make of it, and we should simply allow people to be guided by the truth as they see it. But if that is so, it is not a very helpful answer to Pilate's question, in fact it is dangerous, for then anything goes. On that basis you can shoot people on a beach or behead them on the street, for that is according to the truth they claim to live by.
So Pilate says to Jesus, "okay, you are claiming to speak the truth, but so are your opponents and everyone else, what, then, makes your claim to speak the truth right, and their claims wrong?" Pilate was in a difficult position, especially as he was walking on a political knife-edge created by internal Jewish religious demands and those of Roman justice, and that was as complicated back then Middle Eastern politics is today. No wonder he washed his hands of the whole affair and left it up to the crowd to decide. Truth thus became subject to popular opinion, and the people sensing blood, were in no mood for legal process or rational debate. Truth had become the victim of social and political forces. All of which makes the work of judges and commissions of enquiry not only more difficult but also problematic. Now that the Marikana Report is out, do we really know the truth of what happened that awful day? How come it is always the victims who seem to be found guilty and the powerful get away with just a rap on the knuckles? What is truth? Who decides and on what grounds?
So let us go back to the central theme of John's gospel. What does John mean when he says that Jesus is the truth? Does it mean that only Christians have the truth, and all others, whether they be Muslims, Jews, Buddhists or secularists, live according to a lie? But saying "Jesus is the truth" is not the same as saying that our religion has all the answers. That is what fundamentalism is all about, whether it be Christian, Muslim or any other. This is one of the main reasons why there has been so much religious conflict and war over the centuries. But can the claim that Jesus is the truth be the basis on which Christians reject other people as pagans and even put them to death, or go to war against them and bomb their cities? Doesn't that go against everything Jesus taught and did?
So notice what Jesus actually says to Pilate: "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." This does not mean that only Christians belong to the truth, for historically mainstream Islam regards Jesus as a prophet, and all great religious traditions have a respect for his teaching that is, "to his voice." In other words, Jesus' words about "being the truth" are not about whether Christianity is true and other religions are false, but about the truth that sets us free to live life faithfully and responsibly in relation to God and others. In other words, Jesus does not teach a doctrine we have to believe, but he embodies the meaning of the life we are called to live. Jesus is the message he proclaims. And "his voice" tells us God is loving and just, gracious and forgiving, compassionate and merciful. This is not some kind of wishy-washy sort of religion, on the contrary, in a world of religious and political intolerance and violence, it is the most demanding and costly way of living in the world. After all, Pilate was about to put Jesus to death in an effort to silence "his voice" at the demand of his accusers. And those who listen to his voice are often those who suffer for doing so.
As Christians we do not claim to know all the truth, but we do seek to embody the truth. This truth, revealed in Jesus is not relative for it has to do with what is fundamental to human life and relationships, to justice and peace, and to the flourishing of the world. To grasp this truth is more than simply believing some doctrine, it is about how we live. This is what "emeth," the Hebrew understanding of truth, is really about: living the truth. It is why the Psalmist says that God desires "truth in the inward being." To grasp the truth means to be grasped by the truth.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 2 July 2015