A homily given at St. Ignatius Church 22 May at 10 AM Chestnut Hill, Mass.
During John’s account of Jesus’ passion, Pontius Pilate infamously asks, “What is truth?” It’s a question that is still very applicable in our times, just as it was in Pilate’s. What is truth?
We tend to think of truth along the terms set out by science. You scientists in the congregation will know better than I, but it seems that in science, truth starts out as a hypothesis. The hypothesis stands as the truth until further evidence comes along to modify or even overturn that once held truth.
For example, until very recently it was thought that only 10-20 percent of the stars in our galaxy had planets orbiting them. Now, thanks to scientific observation, scientists believe that nearly all of the major stars in the galaxy have at least one, and perhaps two major planets, planets the size of Jupiter and Saturn, in their orbits. This means that in our galaxy, the planets now outnumber the stars. This discovery represents quite a drastic change in the way we think about our galaxy. We knew the galaxy was chock full of stars, just look up into the sky at night in a dark place and see the millions of bright points of light. Now, thanks to this most recent discovery, the galaxy just got a bit more crowded, as it seems that each of those stars now has a couple of giant planets in its orbit. The truth we once knew is displaced by a new truth based on scientific observation. Perhaps this new truth will be displaced in a few years as scientists sharpen and heighten their abilities to peer into the universe. Truth, then is really something to hang onto very lightly since it seems that we will have more data in the future and a new truth will reveal itself.
But Jesus says, I am the truth, the way and the life.
When we think of truth, perhaps we think of it as scientific facts waiting for an upgrade.
When we think of a way, perhaps we think of our car’s GPS unit that calculates, and recalculates, precise directions, turn right on Commonwealth Avenue, turn left onto Foster street.
And when we think of life, perhaps we think merely of electrical impulses from the brain to the heart to the extremities.
Jesus says we need to thicken up our concepts of the truth, the way and the life—but especially our concept of the truth. Jesus is not just another hypothesis awaiting further data to confirm or deny his claim. We are not waiting for more data to verify, confirm, or even overturn his claim. His claim is not a hypothesis. As Christians, we are invited to trust and believe in Jesus in a way that goes beyond our normal attitudes towards truth.
What is the difference between the truth of Jesus and the many truths upon which we build our lives?
Well of course, there are the true facts about the life of Jesus. There was a man named Jesus who lived in Palestine in the first century, who walked the face of the earth and proclaimed the kingdom of God. There was a man named Jesus who was put to death by Roman and Jewish authorities for claiming that he was the new king of a new kingdom. It is a fact, that after his death, his disciples found his tomb empty and discovered a new way of being in relationship with this new king. But these are just the facts, and facts are not the same thing as truth. Facts merely hold us over until new facts come along and overturn or modify the old facts.
Jesus in claiming to be the truth, the way and the life, makes quite a different definition of truth for us. He asks us to richen and deepen our concept of truth beyond merely placing our trust in discrete facts. He claims that he is the truth, not that the details of his life are true, but that he is truth.
In our scientific age we are not accustomed to viewing people as truth. But this is in fact what Jesus claims. A person, namely this person of Jesus, is the truth.
For us, this means that we can be in a living relationship with the truth. By virtue of the fact that Jesus is a person, we can know truth as we know a person, we can be in relationship with truth as we are in relationship with a person. And people are not a collection of discrete facts—2+2=4, E=MC2—etc. People, especially the person of Jesus, are much richer, more complex than facts.
Because Jesus is alive, risen and fully alive, we are invited into a relationship with the truth that is more akin to our relationships with the people in our lives. To answer Pilate’s question, what is truth, we Christians can say that truth is a relationship with a person, the person of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, getting to know the truth is a lot like getting to know other people rather than memorizing facts and details. Entering into a relationship with a person is much more complicated than merely memorizing their email address, their telephone number, their height, weight, and age. These are the facts of their lives, but they do not add up to the truth of the person. To get to know a person, requires time, patience, sacrifice, and openness. It requires all the complexity of a human relationship. We can grow to love people in a way that transcends the facts of the person. We don’t fall in love with a person’s resume—we fall in love with the person.
Perhaps this is the biggest difference between Jesus’ concept of truth and our watered down, scientific understandings of what is truth. Jesus is a truth that we can fall in love with. Jesus is a person, with all the complexities of a person, who loves us in a way that a fact cannot love us. Those two planets for each star in the universe do not love us, even though it seems now, that they are true facts.
Truth, in Jesus’ terms, is an invitation relationship with a person. Therefore, truth, as Jesus views it, is an invitation to love, and more than an invitation, truth is the foundation for love. It is a bedrock upon which relationships are built. When we love, love a child, a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, we come closest to what Jesus means by truth—very different from memorizing equations, facts, dates, and theorems. Jesus’ truth is more like falling in love—and more difficult—staying in love.
Yes, there is a challenge to us in what Jesus calls truth. It’s easy to memorize the times-tables—2 times 2 is four, 2 times 3 is six, etc—it’s much harder to love and to stay in love. It requires forgiveness, patience, openness, transparency, tenderness, compassion—these are not the things we find in textbooks on mathematics, physics, and economics—the typical domains of our little earthly truths. These little earthly truths are easy to master, love requires a certain form of unmastering—the unmastering of self, the denial of self and the laying down of our lives for the others. This is no easily accomplished set of homework problems—the truth of which Jesus speaks is much, much more difficult to accomplish and to master. There are no academic degrees offered in this field of endeavor—no PhD’s in love—no Masters degrees in loving our neighbor as ourself. When it comes to the truth of Jesus there are no textbooks, no dissertations, no monographs, no equations—there is only the person of Jesus in all his complex love of us.