There was a time when it was universally acknowledged that lying was wrong. Not only did it hurt others, but it hurt the liar. Slander and perjury remain offenses if proved with true evidence. But what is true and what is false? What burdens of proof are required in court and in community? In the media? In our national conversations?
We were told as children that George Washington, our first President, was a noble man. He turned down kingship for a termed presidency. He confessed that he chopped the cherry tree, saying “I cannot tell a lie.” While the latter was probably apocryphal, our culture lauded the virtue of honesty and, through national heroes, taught this virtue to our children. Is that true today?
The most egregious evidence of lack of truth-telling is seen today in the mainstream media. This is deeply troubling, for we know that a democracy, a free people, cannot exist without an unbiased free press informing the electorate.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus. Even then, at the peak of the Roman Empire, truth was difficult to capture. We have this perception today, that we each have our own truth, that truth is subjective, in the eye of the beholder. And yet without common ground and common truths, truths held to be self-evident, truths that support human rights and ensure peace through accepted law and order, we have a country of quicksand, a shifting mirage of unreality.
We celebrate Presidents’ Day tomorrow, somewhere between Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s. They are national heroes, or should be, in spite of their flaws, being human like you and I. We look to our heroes to bring us together as a people with common values. George Washington was brave and honest and good in times of great danger and revolution. Abraham Lincoln came from nothing and became something honorable; he was passionate and fair and freed the slaves, murdered for his actions. Both men stood for ideals they were willing to die for. And so we raise them up as heroes to emulate, to show our children how we all must try to be. This the truth of the past, the truth of belief in a God of love, of moral law, of judgment, and of eternity.
The eighth commandment says to not bear false witness, simplified to do not lie. Moses, another hero, carried the stone tablets burned by God with the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Mankind was given specific moral laws to follow. Since that time, when we follow them, peace and happiness are more likely. When we do not follow them, war and misery prevail. So we teach these laws to our children, these ways to get along together, as a family, as brothers and sisters, as children of God. The first four list our duties to God; the last six list our duties to one another.
In the Gospel today Christ tells the parable of the seeds sewn in various kinds of soil and the resulting crops. In a sense the parable itself is a seed planted in the ear of those who don’t understand the parable. One day they will understand, for the seed will grow and bear fruit. In the meantime, he explains the meaning to the disciples gathered around him. The seed is Holy Scripture, the word of God. We are the soil. Will this seed grow in our own hearts? What kind of soil do we have? Will we produce good fruit?
It is a parable about truth and its many expressions. A friend of mine is keen on the power of stories to convey truth in a way simple facts do not. Stories – parables – touch a person’s heart and reside there for a time, hoping to take root. And so we tell stories that reflect the great truths of the human condition and ask the immense questions of existence: what is love? why are we here? what is goodness, truth, beauty? Is there a God? If so, is he a good God? Why do we suffer? Why does God allow suffering if he is good? What are his commandments, his desires for us? Is he really a God of love?
And in an unbelieving world, many stories reflect despair, self-pity, heartache, chaos, anarchy, and greed. In an unbelieving world, only matter exists, only the flesh, only oneself and one’s own needs.
Both sides are present in every person, and we see both at war in our culture. Machiavelli versus St. Francis. The powerful versus the peaceful. The dishonest versus the honest. Amorality versus morality.
Stories. Pinocchio’s nose grew long when he told a lie. The boy who cried wolf too many times lost the trust of the villagers. And yet a tiny ant (mouse?) could save a lion by chewing on the rope that bound him. The little could become great. But to be great one must follow the moral code. I’m not sure these stories are told anymore.
And so I celebrate Presidents’ Day. Hopefully the toppled statues will be righted. Hopefully we will teach our children about our national heroes and how we should behave as good citizens. We will not expect those heroes to be perfect – no one is – in order to be models. But we fly our flag of ideals, the ways we desire to be, the ways and means we desire to honor.
America remains a beacon on a hill, a light enlightening the world. The hill is still there, but the light is sputtering. It may go out without vigilance. May God guide us in the days to come. May truth prevail in our nation. May our flag of freedom always fly. May we always have national heroes.