“I will give you the keys of the kingdom,” Jesus said to the founders of the Christian church, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
On this Sunday, as we ordain and install new officers of the church, who work along with the pastors and staff of the church to determine and do God’s will for Westminster Presbyterian Church, it is fitting to remember the big responsibility that has been laid in our laps. Jesus gives us the keys, but we still have much responsibility to do what is right.
The Israelites in the Exodus story seemed to have less responsibility, as they were enslaved by the Egyptians. Yet they were strong in number and in spirit, vigorous enough to seem a threat to the new Egyptian king. So this king (never given a name in these stories) determined to oppress them further, making their work hard and their hours long – making their lives "bitter," the text tells us. Yet no matter what was done to them, the Israelites continued to thrive.
Desperate to do something, the king called in two unlikely helpers, two Hebrew midwives. These inconsequential women, named "Beautiful" and "Splendid," listened to the king’s orders to kill the baby boys of their own people. But these women, dedicated to bringing lives into the world rather than destroying them, and faithful to the God of their people, disobeyed the highest official in the land. They did not do what he commanded them to do. When Pharaoh learned this, he called them back and asked them why they disobeyed him. The midwives looked him squarely in the eyes and lied to him. They, in fact, insulted Egyptian women with their reply, saying that Hebrew women were stronger and did not need midwives. Gasps must have gone through the audiences hearing this story, gasps of fear for these women.
Yet the pharaoh must have believed them, because there was no punishment. The king went on to devise an alternate plan, telling his own people to throw Hebrew baby boys into the Nile river. This, of course, set up the story to come in chapter 2, of Moses being born and put in a basket in the Nile, only to be discovered and adopted by the daughter of the Pharaoh.
But back to our lying midwives, the text tells us that God dealt with them, and if we stopped there, we might suppose that God was unhappy with them because they lied. Yet we find that they were rewarded instead, as were the Israelite people as a whole. They were rewarded for lying.
This seems a good topic to discuss this Sunday morning as we look at our officers. We tend to expect church officers to live up to certain standards. The scriptures they read in training about being officers scared some of them, as they saw things that said they should be "above reproach, temperate, respectable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money…well thought of by outsiders….serious, not slanderers…tested…faithful in all things." (from I Timothy 3). These seem big shoes to fill. How do we respond when life tempts us to do something that goes against such demands?
Though we are not in quite the same circumstances as the Hebrew people in our text, we are again in the midst of a "bitter" time in history. Wars rage around the planet, and terrorists wreak havoc with despicable acts; ebola and other diseases cripple and kill; disagreements between political parties render our governing bodies incapable of doing anything meaningful or helpful; racial and gender issues still divide people and spark riots and tension; desperate people kill innocent people far away and right in our neighborhoods. It is a bitter time, and it is made worse when we cannot trust the news sources or the politicians to tell us the truth. "What is truth?" Pilate asked Jesus at his trial. And we wonder the same thing.
For most modern people, truth is the agreement between what is written or stated and what is factual. But the biblical meaning goes much deeper. The most common Hebrew word for truth comes from a verb meaning "to sustain, to support." The root can mean: firm, solid, reliable, faithful, tested, lasting, true. It indicates something that is unchangeable, sound, faithful, steady, constant, loyal, just. In this sense, God is, of course, seen as true, constant and unchangeable like a fortress, a rock, a refuge. God can be trusted, and God’s commandments have truth in them. Truth of God implies a way of living, a whole religious and moral life in agreement with God’s will.
The New Testament usage of "truth" is a bit more intellectual because of the Hellenistic influence, but truth is still important, especially in the Gospel of John and Paul’s writings. Truth comes from a relationship between the Creator and the created world. God’s ways, judgments, words, are true, as are those of Jesus, who is one with the Creator. God’s truth may be in opposition to the world at times, because the world lacks truth, according to the Gospel of John. Jesus is the "true vine," the "true bread from heaven." Jesus shows us and tells us of God’s intention for the world to be true and good and faithful, just as Jesus was true and good and faithful.
And the Bible has a bit to say about deceit, which is what the midwives used in today’s passage. The Bible says, "Bread gained by deceit is sweet, but afterward the mouth will be full of gravel" (Proverbs 20:17); "Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue" (Psalm 120:2); "No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue before my eyes" (Psalm 101:7), or "Whoever desires to love life and to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit" (I Peter 3:10).
Lying and deceit are so closely linked. Lying has been defined as "giving false information with the intention of deceiving." To deceive is "to cause to believe what is not true; to mislead."
So the question has to be asked, biblically, morally, faithfully: Is it ever okay to lie? As I pondered this question, I turned to a book that has been on my shelf for a long time, called Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. It was written by Sissela Bok, a Swedish-born American philosopher who is the daughter of 2 Nobel Prize winners, and married to a former president of Harvard. She says that in philosophy or professional ethics, it may not seem to matter whether or not one lies, when there seems to be good reason to do so, because it is so hard to know the truth or falsity of so many things. She points out that some use this philosophy to lie when dealing with clients in business, justifying to themselves that they are not lying. But she also points out that these are arguments made by the liars, never by those being lied to. (Bok, p.13) She defines a lie as any deceptive message that is stated (p.14). She says a lie means "having one thing in the heart, yet uttering another" (p.37). She points out that two kinds of harm are done with lying: harm is done to the liar, and harm is done to the general level of trust and social cooperation with others. Lying begets lying. Even little white lies, which we think avoid harm ("Yes, I do like that dress on you. No, those pants do not make you look fat.") can lead to bigger lies, she says. She compares it to a wedge. Once we start lying, we have to lie more to cover up the lie, and more and more to cover up those lies.
Yet, she does ask the question of lying for good, for the sake, perhaps, of a greater truth. Should the German family hiding a Jew in their basement in Nazi Germany, for instance, have confessed when the Gestapo stood at their door and asked them if they are hiding anyone? Bok says that "concealment, evasion, withholding of information may at times be necessary," but that, in such instances, the correct information must be told to someone. She says that institutions, governments, and educational systems should never lie or deceive, and yet we all know that they all do.
So, officers and others, we have danced around the issue of truth-telling and lying without coming to a real conclusion. Is lying sometimes justified, if it protects a greater truth? Bok seems to say no.
And yet some biblical stories seem to suggest that there are times when truth-telling in the world may not agree with God’s truth. More than once, Abraham presented Sarah as his sister rather than his wife in order to protect his own life and hers. Jacob tricked his twin brother Esau out of his firstborn birthright, yet God worked through Jacob to do great things, most importantly to bear Joseph. Joseph deceived his brothers before revealing who he was, in order to test them. These are stories we love, perhaps because we are more like the biblical characters who are imperfect than the images we have painted of many of them, in which they seem so perfect.
The truth, then, would seem to lie in our hearts, as we seek to follow God and Jesus, and in our words and deeds, as we act on behalf of our Savior in our world. If telling the truth would endanger someone else, or would damage someone, we need to think deeply about how we handle what we say or do. And we need to remember that God can work through us in our imperfections and weaknesses. These two Hebrew midwives were young women in a society that did not value women for anything other than bearing children. And they were members of an enslaved people. They had no power – except for their trust in God. God, who is truth, protected the people of God through these helpless women. Jesus, when Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" answered, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:5-6). Jesus is the truth, and shows us the true way to live.
I hope that none of us, as pastors, as officers, as Christians, are confronted with times, as were the Hebrew midwives, when we have to choose between God’s truth and the truth of the world because such times are usually very serious, dire times. But if we are, I hope we have the wisdom and the courage to choose God’s truth. And that we will be guided, as these women were, by their "fear of God," as the passage says. Fear in the biblical sense means more than what we feel when watching horror movies. It means "awe, respect, trust." The midwives acted as they did because they knew the greater truth lies in God, who is Truth.
May God bless our new officers, and all of us, as we continue to seek to do God’s will in our world, which so desperately needs for God’s truth and love to reign supreme. Glory be to God. Amen.
Bok, Sissera, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Vintage Books, NY, 1978)
Fretheim, Terence E., Exodus (Interpretation Commentary) (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1991)
Noth, Martin, Exodus: A Commentary (Westminster Press, PA, 1962)