In a small town, there were two brothers who, over the course of many years, cheated, swindled, robbed and generally stole from everyone that they ever did business with. The entire town and surrounding community reviled and despised these two brothers as everyone was aware of just how disreputable and dishonest they were. One day, one of the brothers mysteriously died.
Although they had never attended church, the one remaining brother went to the local pastor and offered vast sums of money if he would come to the funeral and say the appropriate words, AND, a large bonus, but ONLY if he would - during the course of the eulogy -refer to his brother as "a Saint."
The pastor was troubled by the request, however, it was a very poor church and the church desperately needed repairs. The parishioners had heard about the pastor's dilemma and were curious as to what he would do. The funeral began, the church was packed, and the pastor started with the usual prayers and followed the rites and traditions as required by the church’s teachings. In closing, after referring to the man in the casket, he paused and turned to face the remaining brother.
He began, "As you all know, the departed was an awful individual who robbed, cheated, swindled and stole from everyone he ever did business with. However, compared to his brother, he was a saint!"
Most of us would not go to such lengths to cover up an untruth. Unfortunately, elaborate cover-ups, like the one Nathan the prophet exposes in our Hebrew Scriptures lesson from 2 Samuel, are all too common in our politics, business practices, even in our day-to-day relationships.
If you recall from our meditation from last week, King David had reached the pinnacle of success. He had risen from being a young village sheep herder to an able and daring soldier, to a court musician and then confidante to the inner royal circle, to finally, king himself. He solidified Israel’s borders. He built a powerful court. He had wealth, wives, servants and children. What more could he want? Yet he wanted more. We heard from last week’s reading that he lusted after his neighbor’s wife, who was a loyal soldier named Uriah. He called for this woman, named Bathsheba, while Uriah is away fighting in one of David’s battles and slept with her. Bathsheba became pregnant. When David’s maneuvers to cover up his adultery failed, he had Uriah killed on the front lines and took Bathsheba as his wife. Case closed. Everyone looks the other way.
Everyone, that is, except God, and the prophet Nathan whom God sends to confront David. Nathan cleverly engages David by telling him a story of a rich man with abundant flocks who steals the beloved ewe lamb of a poor man. David, outraged, pronounces judgment: “As the Lord lives, the man deserves to die, he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.”
David clearly knows the Law, because in Exodus 22 it states that anyone who steals or kills the sheep of another person must make 4-fold restitution. Yet despite knowing the Law, David, privileged, reached a dangerous place in his life where he thought the Law didn’t apply to himself.
According to researchers, just about everyone over the age of three engages in some form of lying or another. Granted most of our lies are in the innocuous category of “of course that dress looks great on you!” “I was just going to call you!” “I swear, I only had one beer,” “I’m sorry I have another appointment to get to right now.” “The check is in the mail as we speak.”
The truth about lying is that it is estimated that over 10,000.000 taxpayers “ fudge their tax forms.” Human resource statistics claim that “80% of all resumes are misleading. “A high percentage of doctors pad their bills to health insurance providers. Close to one-half million lawyers who were polled said they mostly “work to benefit their clients, not to arrive at the truth.” 20-30% of middle managers surveyed admitted to writing fraudulent internal reports.
But that does let the ordinary Joe and Jane worker off the hook. Studies have shown nearly half of workers engaging in unethical or illegal actions at some point in their career. They cut corners on quality control. Covered up incidents. Abused or lied about sick days. Lied to or deceived customers. False claims for workers’ compensation are so widespread that private investigators in San Francesco spent 75 percent of their time investigating suspected cases.
Who knows what the real statistics are and the reasons behind all this lying and stretching the truth? Who is to blame? The individuals who know right from wrong, or the legal-economic-social system devised to reward lying or makes survival almost dependable on lying?
The apostle Paul in our Ephesians lesson says that our culture of lying, and deceitfulness can only be transformed when it is engaged by a culture of speaking the truth in love. We are called not to be children, easily pulled to and fro by deceitful scheming. Paul says that the sign of spiritual maturity is that as a community, we learn to discern what is false from what is true and we are connected one to the other promoting healthy spiritual growth in the entire body.
The only way to avoid being taken in by trickery, to stop the lying, to avoid the sneakiness, as a body we practice speaking the truth in love with one another. Not to hurt. Not stroke our own egos. But to build up the body of Christ, in love so we can follow Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, the Life.
This the work that Nathan the prophet did for David. Where the court failed David, Nathan told David the truth about his conduct. He helped David to see the destruction he did by acting out of greed. Yet Nathan didn’t burst in on David and condemn him. Nathan didn’t engage in political, theological or military rhetoric. He didn’t quote the Law. He didn’t start by making David feel bad about himself. Nathan came to David, as Paul advises, with humility and gentleness, patience, bearing with him in his errors. Nathan began by telling David a story, a story that David with roots as a shepherd boy would understand intimately. He brought David back to the core of his being, filled with images David could relate to. Nathan created an opening so that David could, with the prophet’s help, see himself in the story. Nathan’s speaks of flocks, shepherds, little ewe lambs, images deep from David’s past. David reacts with indignation and anger to the story, and Nathan helps David see himself in the story. David immediately responds, I have sinned. David wrote that beautiful penitential psalm 51 which we read as our prayer of confession as a result of Nathan speaking truth in love to him.
Nathan knew David well and was invested in helping him repent and heal. He confronted David directly, and reminded him of his blessings, his responsibilities, and consequences of his actions. The story reminds us of the saying: “every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.” We help each other find that future by our loving insights, corrections, support that we give one another.
We are called to be like Nathan for each other, and for the world. It is a hard role, to confront the powerful and privileged. But let’s put it a different way. We are called to speak the truth of those who can’t speak out, that ewe lamb that was stolen, the poor person with no standing, the true stories that the world would rather not hear. On a day to day basis, we help double check each other, we speak lovingly but directly with each other, We challenge each other when necessary, so truth remains the guiding principle of our lives.
As we approach our Lord’s Table, we are called to examine our conscience: what lies or falsehoods do we cling to? What half-truths control our actions? What right doing do we avoid in order to get ahead? Can we be like Nathan for each other, and speak truth in love as we call out the best in each other. As we bear with each other in love, humility gentleness and patience, the lies, trickery and scheming will fall away. In its place we will be one body, united by one Spirit, equipped not to cover up, but build up this world in Love. Amen.