Speaking Truth to Power: Risk-taking Mission and Service

Do you remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes? I found a delightful version of it on YouTube, featuring finger puppets. Let’s watch!

The people around the King were did not tell him the truth. Some worked for him, and were protecting their jobs. Perhaps others were just too polite to tell him he had exposed himself to ridicule. Some may have feared the King would blame them for his embarrassment. Even the King’s closest confidantes and advisors lied, and pretended they could see the fancy suit of clothes.

The people who lined the parade route for the King’s procession all went along with the big lie. Everyone except the little girl, who just blurted out the words, “Mommy, the Emperor is not wearing any clothes!” Only then does the shell of lies crack, and the truth peck its way out, like a freshly born chick. The crowd began to excitedly peep the truth, that the Emperor was naked. If the story had been set in our time, the crowd would have whipped out their phones, to take photos. They’d be tweeting and snap-chatting and facebooking about catching the King with barely any dignity left.

The voice of truth in this story is a small child. I love that. It makes me think of the time people brought children to Jesus to be blessed, and some disciples tried to keep them away. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes is about the innocence of a child. She has not yet learned there can be consequences to saying out loud what she sees to be true. The story is also about the dangers of vanity, and pride. The King seems trapped in a false image of who he is, and who he can show himself to be. He does not have the courage to admit he could not see the new suit of clothes.

We could also see the story as a warning against unchecked consumerism. What emptiness inside the King was he trying to fill with fancy clothes, and the fawning compliments of his paid friends in court? Most of all, I think the story is about the foolishness, the danger, of going along with the accepted truths of society, even if you know they are big fat lies. Only the child dared to tell the unpopular truth. When she did, the crowd was quick to acknowledge what she said was true. The sad, vain king really was standing naked in the street.

Have you ever been in a situation in which you faced the power of a big lie? What did you do? Unless you are blessed with the innocence of a child, it takes courage to stand by the uncomfortable, inconvenient truth. What are the big lies of our time?

Today we heard the description in Mark’s Gospel of an encounter between Jesus, and the chief priest of the Jerusalem temple. Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, and brought before a gathering of the powerful leaders of the temple. They had been looking for a way to get rid of him. The Message says, “The high priests conspiring with the Jewish Council looked high and low for evidence against Jesus by which they could sentence him to death. They found nothing. Plenty of people were willing to bring in false charges, but nothing added up, and they ended up canceling each other out.”

The Chief Priest faced a choice. He could go along with the conspiracy to deal with Jesus, or he could admit out loud there were no real grounds to condemn him. There might be a case to be made that Jesus had disrupted things in the Temple when he chased out the money-changers. But could that really be called blasphemy, an offence punishable by death?

I admire what Jesus did in the Temple, on the day he knocked over the tables. Do you remember that story? Jesus objected to the money-changing in the temple. Devout Jews who came to buy animals for sacrifice in the temple, had to exchange their Roman coins, which bore graven images of Caesar, and were considered to be unclean. The money changers took those coins, and gave the equivalent in Jewish shekels, minus their commission on the deal. Then the faithful Jew could buy a heifer, or a goat, or a lamb, or doves, to be slaughtered by the priests, and burned as an offering, or sacrifice to God. Except that only the parts of the animal not fit to eat would be burned. These sacrifices were promoted by the priests as a way to win God’s favour, and to become once again, ritually clean. But the priests actually sold the parts of the animals that were not burned, and made great profits for the temple. Jesus called attention to these shady practices, by which the temple priests preyed on the faithful.

I think Jesus was doing what Quakers call “Speaking Truth to Power”. In 1955 a group of American Quakers first used that phrase in a pamphlet. They were proposing a new approach to the Cold War, the escalating stock-piling of weapons of mass destruction that ate up so much of the energy and money of the American and Soviet economies in the years after World War 2. They offered a powerful truth to the elected leaders of the United States, and to the American people. Their pamphlet said: “Our truth is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden.”

The Quakers challenged the idea that peace could be achieved by the threat of more violence. Jesus challenged the idea that God’s love must be bought, and that it was acceptable to make a profit from people’s fear of a judging God. It takes courage to reject the big lies, especially when vested powers need those lies to be upheld, to protect their interests.

The Chief Priest, who had the power to release Jesus, instead went along with at least two big lies. The first was that Jesus was sinning against God, in how he lived, and in what he taught. The second was that any good would come of handing him over to the Romans to be killed. If the Chief Priest had the conscience of any normal human being, like you or I, it must have caused him deep inner conflict to ignore the little voice inside, that spoke the truth. Maybe it was a childlike voice, innocent of evil plans, like the little girl who said, “Mommy, the Emperor is not wearing any clothes.”

Near the end of the conversation with Jesus, the Chief Priest asked if he was the Messiah. Jesus said,  “Yes, I am, and you’ll see it yourself: The Son of Man seated At the right hand of the Mighty One, Arriving on the clouds of heaven.”

The Chief Priest’s response was complicated, and I think it shows that he was conflicted- that deep inside he was arguing with himself. Should he do what was politically expedient, or listen to the little voice of truth? The story says he lost his temper. Not a good thing to do when acting in an official role, to pass judgement on another human being. He ripped his clothes, which is a traditional way of expressing grief, rather than anger. It sounds like his anger, his frustration is tinged with sadness. As if he is not so sure. In the end, he does not actually make a decision. He backs away from responsibility, and goads those around him, the lesser priests and temple officials, to get them to make the call.

He yelled, “Did you hear that? After that do we need witnesses? You heard the blasphemy. Are you going to stand for it?” They condemned him, one and all. The sentence: death.    Some of them started spitting at him. They blindfolded his eyes, then hit him, saying, “Who hit you? Prophesy!” The guards, punching and slapping, took Jesus away.”

I imagine that as Jesus is hauled off to the Roman officials, the Chief Priest just stands there, not knowing what to do. There is no way he can take back what he has said, and no way to prevent what is about to happen. He stands there, weakly, in his torn clothes.

I wonder how naked he felt. Amen

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