People in all generations have asked, “What is truth?”, and people in all generations have sought answers to that fundamental, philosophical question. Few answers posited have “stuck” for the use and the benefit of successive generations, and some of the great thinkers would say, “That’s exactly how it should be because whatever truth is, it is relative to person and circumstance. There is no such thing as absolute truth.” No one to my knowledge has ever accused me of being one of the great thinkers although a student once wrote on a course evaluation, “Dr. Farmer is a god.” I have that one framed and hanging on my office wall.
If by “thinker” one means “philosopher,” I’d be the first to agree that I’m not one of those and do not wish to be, but I do think from time to time so I’m going to wade into these philosophical waters and say that while I recognize the reality of relative truths, “truths” that change over time based on information unavailable to previous generations, I would not, by any means, say that absolute truths are nonexistent.
This could take us in many directions, but I want us for the next several Sundays to think about truth pragmatically and interpersonally, rather than in a philosophical sense, per se, even though the philosophical sense of truth must linger in the background of our deliberations. Today we begin a sermon series I’m calling “The Lingering Power of the Well Told Lie.” The subtitle of the series could be “The Power and Importance of Truth.”
So George Washington, the first president of our nation, is typically remembered as a person of great honesty even though as truth gets sorted from legend by historians, he wasn’t so hot as a military commander. He was, however, a person of integrity, and as we near the celebration of his birthday, we remember a story that has long been associated with President Washington. As a child, new hatchet in hand, he naturally wanted to find something to chop down. If you can’t chop something down, why have a hatchet in the first place? The poor choice he made was to have chosen to chop down one of his father’s cherry trees. We would have to think that a little boy even with a fine and finely sharpened hatchet couldn’t chop down a fully mature cherry tree so, probably, young George chopped down one of the younger trees.
In any case, his father found the downed tree and asked his son if he might know who would have done such a thing. Probably, putting the facts together, George’s father had a decent idea of who had done it; boy plus new hatchet plus downed cherry tree could add up to boy using new toy. Still, instead of accusing his son outright, the father respectfully asked his son who, according to legend, replied promptly and truthfully, “I cannot tell a lie; I chopped down the cherry tree.”
The factuality of this story has been called into question in recent years. Washington’s integrity isn’t questioned as far as I know, but as a way of emphasizing his integrity, something that started when he was a kid and continued through the rest of his life, some literary and historical investigators have suspicions that the story was made up, made up by a parson who sold books on the side and who wrote his own book about Washington. Of course we all know that ministers never lie so the accusation that Parson Weems made it up to help sell his very successful book can’t possibly be true. We wish it weren’t so, but preachers and politicians do lie--not all of either, but many of both; and Mason Locke Weems may have made up the cherry tree legend to include in a biography he wrote of Washington, published in 1800, to bolster book sales while, at the same time, giving young people a piece of the great Washington they could grasp and hold onto
The very nature of legend is that bits of fact are mixed with bits of fiction to make an individual look, in retrospect, either much better or much worse than she or he actually was in order to rewrite history to some degree. Fans of the person about whom legend is told want her or him to be remembered as great by everyone and as ordinary by no one so some of the person’s better moments are trumped up as stories are told after the person is no longer prominent or after the person has died. Exactly the same thing can happen negatively; someone who wants an important figure to be remembered negatively plants unkind and unflattering stories about the person in the mix of stories recalled and told about her or him. What many of the males in the early Jesus Movement did with Mary Magdalene’s life story is the perfect example of what we could call “negative legend.”
Some of the stories that have come down to us about Jesus are likely based on some historical kernel, exaggerated toward the good or the amazing by his followers who lived on after him. In order for the Christian religion to be able to make a go of it, they couldn’t leave Jesus to history as nothing more than a poor carpenter who lived his whole life under the subjection of the Roman Empire and, finally, died the cruel death of a notorious enemy of the state so some of the basic, no frills stories about Jesus got embellished by followers who wanted others after them to see the greatness in Jesus that they saw. It’s hard to build a religion or a religious movement around a central figure who never has much money, never has much prominence, and who is executed in the cruel and inhuman manner that Rome reserved only for those whom it regarded as the most vile enemies of the Roman Empire. Parts of the collection of Jesus stories that have survived into the modern era are legendary and not historic.
At the opposite end of the spectrum with Mary Magdalene is Judas, Judas Iscariot, who had a hand in helping Rome capture Jesus. Judas was a zealous follower of Jesus; he adored Jesus, and perhaps more than any other disciple believed that Jesus could be or become the conqueroring messiah hoped for by many Jews since ancient times. Judas helped Rome arrest Jesus only because he thought that, once cornered, Jesus would get rid of this meek and mild stuff and come out swinging, marshaling in the process sufficiently angry forces to beat up on Rome enough to cause Rome to set the Jews free. Judas’ plan backfired, and Jesus was crucified by the Romans. Judas got the blame, even though the last thing Judas wanted was for Jesus to be hurt in any way, much less executed. That is why in his unspeakable grief he took his own life. Needing someone to blame for Jesus’ horrible fate the legendary Judas became increasingly evil as every generation after his death told his tale.
On the other end of my home state, Tennessee, from where I grew up there once lived one of the greatest musical performers in the history of American entertainment, Elvis Presley. Health complications handed this country boy from Mississippi an early death. A coroner pronounced him dead. A funeral director embalmed and buried the body. A memorial service was held, and countless people saw his lifeless body, but some serious devotees of Elvis’s refused and still refuse to believe that he died. What people observed was play-acting, they say Therefore, though getting on up in years, Elvis is still alive, and about as many people who claim to have seen aliens claim to have seen Elvis--usually at night and usually at a Waffle House or a VFW dance. The legend told as factual isn’t factual at all, but the legend wants to stress Elvis’s greatness by keeping him alive. That Elvis was great is true; that Elvis is still alive and showing up at Memphis IHOPS near his Graceland Mansion are lies--however well-intentioned.
There are many stories in the Bible about lies, and not all lies are condemned by any means, which would give some readers of scripture the idea that it must be all right to lie under certain circumstances. We can think of some Protestants in Germany and throughout Europe during Hitler’s reign of terror who hid Jews and helped them escape; to protect the lives of the Jews they were hiding, many a Protestant lied to Hitler’s accomplices when asked if they were hiding Jews. They clearly were hiding the Jews, and if they answered, “Yes,” chances are they as well as the Jews they were hiding would have been put to death--maybe on the spot. I applaud those who saved Jewish lives by lying to Hitler.
Many a Caucasian crusader against slavery lied to legal authorities and military personnel about their knowledge of and participation in the Underground Railroad, which was a series of secret routes slaves could take to get far enough north to be free from their taskmasters and their lives of misery. I applaud those Caucasians who lied to those who, perfectly within their legal rights, wanted to punish or kill runaway slaves.
Someone may say, “I always tell the truth. I would not lie under any circumstances.” I admire the morality such a sentiment is intended to convey, but I would say that if telling a dangerous, destructive person a lie is necessary in order to save an innocent person’s life then the lie should be told.
Now, this principle doesn’t apply to modern teens who lie to their parents to keep from getting grounded. Being grounded isn’t life threatening, and if you did something serious enough that your parents decide to ground, you suck it up, tell the truth, and take your punishment. On the other hand, if a teen has to lie to keep from being sexually or otherwise physically abused, then I believe she or he should lie to save that part of her or his personhood.
On the side, I’m a professor--for those of you who don’t already know that, and in that role I’ve learned a great deal about lying. The excuses I hear for submitting late work or plagiarizing could be the stuff of a very entertaining novel or film. Technology has changed the old fashioned lies as excuses, such as, “There’s been a death in the family.” My first boss at Wilmington University, George Bellenger, used to say to students who told him that there had been a death, “I’m very sorry for your loss, and I’d like to see a copy of the bulletin used at the service or a clipping of the obituary from the newspaper.” Oops. Some of them got caught red-tongued then and there.
Technological lies, however, are very different and are much more difficult to disprove. When I first started teaching online, weekly classwork was always due on Monday. I had a student whose power went out, like clockwork, every Sunday night so that he couldn’t possibly, he said, finish up his work to be able to submit it on Monday. After two or three weeks of that nonsense, and I confess that I did believe him the first time, I told him that henceforth his work would be due on Wednesdays rather than Mondays because of that blasted Sunday night power issue; I also emailed him several means of contacting Delmarva so that he could get that mess cleared up.
A few studies have shown, including a widely known study conducted in the United Kingdom in the year 2000, that men lie more frequently than women. That Y2K study was upgraded in 2009 with the same results, except that the results were more specific. Men, the study said, lie six times every day--twice the number of times women lie in a day. The most common lie told by both genders isn’t sneaky and deceitful, but it’s still untrue, “I’m fine.” When someone asks how they’re doing, they say, “I’m fine,” when, in fact, they’re not fine. This is an understandable lie because most of us have learned, sometimes painfully, that just because someone asks us how we are doesn’t mean she or he really wants to know; somehow, though, they’re uncomfortable with a, “Hi there,” so they add, “How ya doin?” The only answer many who ask that question want to hear is, “Fine.” Those poor gullible people who live for a while believing that everyone who asks that question wants a detailed response dare to answer truthfully and then give enough details to support their answer so that the person who asked runs away and never speaks again to the person who tried to give an honest answer.
There are those good hearted souls who call a friend who is ill or who is dealing with some tragic loss, and instead of saying the most sensible thing they could say, which would be something like, “I’m thinking about you today and wanted you to know,” they ask, “How ya doing?” Even then, all they really want you to say is, “Fine.” They have no interest whatsoever in having you say, “Well, I still don’t feel well at all; I think they’re going to have to lance this humongous boil on my backside.”
What kind of a question is, “How ya doin?”, to someone who just lost a loved one? In our culture, we want people to be emotionally neat and tidy so even after they’ve suffered a loss, we want them to be back to normal within a couple of days so we want them to say, “I’m fine,” even when their heart is still in the process of breaking to pieces. Many who ask the question have no intention of hanging around to hear the person detail how she or he is really doing, “If I can make it through an hour without crying, I feel like I’m making progress,” or, “I feel like I’ve lost my reason to keep going.” The person who asks comes up with some excuse suddenly to have to get off the line or fakes cell phone trouble, “What did you say? Huh? Are you there? I can’t hear anything. Something’s wrong with this crazy cell. Catch you later, OK?”
So, we get trained to say, “I’m OK,” when we’re not, and that is the number one lie both men and women tell. The fact is, only those people who really want to know how we are should ask the question.
In an old Reader’s Digest article written by Dr. Joyce Brothers, she listed seven lies men frequently tell women they’re trying to impress; remember, now, this was before internet chat, which has changed the whole realm of possibilities for lies.
- “I graduated at the top of my class.”
- “Of course I like your friends.”
- “You’re the best lover I’ve ever been with.”
- “I can’t call you then. I don’t even know where I’ll be at that time.”
- “No way. That dress is not too tight. It looks great on you.”
- “They’re downsizing at work, but any layoffs won’t have an impact on me.”
- “Sure, I’ll mow the lawn as soon as this back trouble clears up.”
Now, the five lies women most commonly tell men. Remember, #1 on both sides is, “I’m fine.”
- “I’m not mad at you.”
- “No, I don’t mind if you go to the strip club with the boys.”
- “I’m just not ready for a boyfriend right now.”
- “I don’t mind picking up the tab tonight.”
- “That was the best sex of my life.”
Earlier in today’s sermon, I referred a bit to justifiable lies, if you will, and I tried to make it very clear that these can only be justifiable in an extreme or life-threatening circumstance. Many lies are told by various biblical characters, and not all of them by any means are justifiable. The lie about which our reflective reading today spoke happens to have been one of those justifiable lies. Abram lies to the Egyptians to save his own life.
With all the unrest going on in Egypt right now, I felt a lot of uneasiness all week with my sermon title posted on our large sign out front: “Abraham Lies to the Egyptians.” I didn’t want to upset any Jews who are fearful about who will gain power once Mubarak is finally out, and I didn’t want to upset any of the Egyptians who are upset just because it’s fun for them to be upset and angry, not because they are pressing for freedom for all citizens of their nation. A rabbi spoke here on Wednesday evening, and he didn’t mention it; and I didn’t run into any Egyptians this week so I hope no one was offended. I also hope no one construed based on that title, which, truth be told, is a very poor sermon title, that I would dare today to preach about the solution to the “Egyptian problem.” It’s a touchy, dangerous, complicated, and multifaceted situation that very few people fully understand; let us all hope and pray and send out our positive thoughts for a peaceful resolution beginning with the cessation of all violence at once. It happens when sermons are planned well in advance that there are some interesting parallels at times between the sermon and current events.
Now to the lie Abram, who would eventually be called Abraham, told the Egyptians, a lie he, perhaps, told the Pharaoh himself. The chronology of many of the longer collections of stories in Hebrew scripture is often jumbled. Key episodes are put in a place of importance, not necessarily told in chronological order. So, the episode on which we focus today is from a time relatively early in the lives of Abram and Sarai as a couple. They weren’t newlyweds, but they both still had their youthful beauties; and they were a long way from that poignant time in their twilight years when they felt unfulfilled because they’d never been able to have a child together. As that part of the story goes, God gifted them with a son, but that story will come up for us in a few weeks because dear old Sarah, sweet old octogenarian Sarah will laugh at God’s promise and then turn right around and lie to God about it, denying that she laughed at all.
There was a famine in the land where Abram lived with his wife, Sarai, and their only real option was to go to Egypt, which shows itself several times in early Hebrew history to be a generous and caring people; this would change, but early on it was a fact. Abram and Sarai head toward Egypt where they are willing to live as aliens in exchange for nourishment. They weren’t going to be treated like royalty and would probably have to take landscaping or housecleaning jobs to get by, but at least they wouldn’t starve to death.
As they neared Egypt, it dawned on Abram that not all the Egyptians might be kind and understanding as well as generous. He realized that even though strictly forbidden in Hebrew culture, not all cultures took seriously the importance of treating aliens, sojourners, immigrants humanely.
Sarai was a lovely lady, and the more Abram thought about the what if’s the more he realized that it would be very easy for some of less noble Egyptians to take Sarai as a sex slave and kill him just to have him out of the way. So, Abram said to Sarai as they got closer and closer to Egypt, “Look, sweetheart, we’re in a bind. We have to eat, and the only easy food I know about is here in Egypt, but you are so beautiful that some unscrupulous Egyptian might take you as his sex slave and kill me just to make it all the more tidy. Let’s say, some higher up wants to take you as a concubine; your having a husband would complicate the process so he would have me put to death so that he could do with you whatever he wanted to do. The only thing I can do, and it kills me even to think of it, is to tell them you’re my sister. They are still likely to take you and make you their slave, but you will live; and I will live. We’ll both come out alive on the other side of the famine at home and go on with our lives as best we can.”
Ironically, perhaps, Sarai doesn’t say a word, as the story is told. She silently accepts her fate as a woman in that time and place.
When Pharaoh’s officials saw the beautiful Sarai showing her passport at the immigration office, they hurried to their ruler and said, “Our Pharaoh, our master, the most beautiful Hebrew woman has just been allowed entry into our country. Only you are deserving of a woman with such beauty; she is here with her brother, and they are hungry--willing to do whatever we ask in all likelihood.”
When the Pharaoh saw Sarai, his eyes bugged out, and he agreed with his aides. He took Sarai as one of his concubines, and in appreciation, thinking Abram was her brother, the Pharaoh showered him with gifts. Abram had it made while Sarai was the Pharaoh’s sex slave. How often he called for her, we don’t know, but she was obedient when called, and the glaring message of the story regarding survival is that Sarai’s willingness to be the Pharaoh’s concubine saved her and her husband, aka brother.
It, sadly, is not uncommon in history for women to be used sexually to protect and provide for their husbands and their children. Abram had been willing to work as a slave if that’s what it took to get food for himself and his wife; as it turned out the lie he told worked in his favor. Unlike his wife, aka sister, he lived high on the donkey and didn’t suffer the loss of any dignity while waiting for the famine back home to subside.
The lie saved Abram’s hide and allowed him to keep on living to be there for Sarai when the Pharaoh was ready for a fresh supply of young and beautiful concubines. Abram took a risk, but as it turned out, only Sarai suffered--though not as much as if she’d fallen into the hands of a lesser man than the honorable Pharaoh.
It turns out not to have been a long-term arrangement because about as soon as Sarai became a part of the Pharaoh’s household, he and many members of his family and staff became ill. The only cause the royal doctors could trace it back to was Sarai.
The Pharaoh called Abram and said, “Something isn’t right here, pal. What’s up?” Abram could have sustained the lie, but to his credit and facing death if he made the Pharaoh angry enough, he told the truth. “Your majesty, she is not my sister; she is my wife.”
Pharaoh said, “Well, you and she get out of Egypt now. And you’d better be glad I feel too ill to call for what you really deserve.” Sarah was done with concubinage, and Abram got to keep all the gifts the Pharaoh had given him because the Pharaoh was afraid that messing around with Abram would keep him and his people on the sick list.
Most lies are not justifiable. Most lies are told for careless or destructive reasons--intentionally to mislead or hurt. We must be people of truth.