Father Donald Senior, CP

Aug. 18: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Speaking truth to power

Jer 38:4-6, 8-10; Ps 40:2, 3, 4, 18; Heb 12:1-4; Lk 12:49-53

This provocative phrase, I learned, originated with a Quaker pamphlet published in 1955 titled “Speak Truth to Power: a Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.” It has been adopted by many different groups since then to characterize their public stance.  

It has a general sense of encouraging those who know the truth not to hesitate to proclaim it, even in the face of indifferent or oppressive power, such as government officials or heads of industry or, for that matter, religious leaders. It implies that often those in positions of power hide or distort the truth for their own purpose or to protect their institutions.

Is speaking truth to power a biblical and Christian concept? The challenging readings for this Sunday seem to say a resounding “yes.” 

The first reading describes an assault on the prophet Jeremiah, noted for his sharp challenge to the powerful leaders of Israel. Exasperated by his relentless proclamation of the truth, the princes seek permission from King Zedekiah to have Jeremiah thrown into a cistern where he would languish in the mud and ultimately die of thirst. 

Jeremiah is rescued by the intervention of a court official, Ebed-melech (a name that means “servant of the king”), who persuades Zedekiah to pull the prophet out of the pit before he should die.

This assault on the prophet known for speaking truth to power is echoed in the response Psalm 49 that prays, “Lord, come to my aid!” The psalmist praises God “who heard my cry” and “drew me out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud of the swamp.” Speaking the truth — as Jeremiah did — can be dangerous for one’s health so one prays, “You are my help and my deliverer; O my God, hold not back!”

Other biblical characters proclaimed the truth at the risk of their own lives. We think of Moses before Pharaoh, of the fierce prophetic courage of Elijah confronting King Ahab and of Amos’ words indicting the powerful for their exploitation of the poor. We cannot forget John the Baptist who told the truth to Herod and was executed for it, an incident the Gospels view as a preview of Jesus’ own death.

But, of course, the readings today point to Jesus himself as the ultimate example of speaking truth to power. The stage is set by a beautiful passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that uses a series of vivid metaphors to speak of Jesus. Christian life is like running a race and Jesus is the “prosdromos,” the one who runs through first. He is “the leader and perfecter of faith.” “For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat the right of the throne of God.” Although Jesus “endured such opposition from sinners,” he “did not grow weary or lose heart.”

Today’s Gospel selection from Luke portrays the white-hot intensity of Jesus’ prophetic role: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” “Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” 

These words may startle us if we think only of Jesus’ words of love and reconciliation. There were times in the Gospel accounts where he sharply condemns the rigid hypocrisy of the religious leaders or refuses to cower before the murderous threats of Herod: “Go and tell that fox, behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I accomplish my purpose.” Jesus died on the cross because he spoke the ultimate truth to the powers of death.

Yes, speaking truth to power is a way of expressing the Christian responsibility to confront falsehood and to tell the truth even in hostile and dangerous circumstances. Such truth telling, we know from experience, can cause friction and divisions. This prophetic role, when done in the spirit of Jesus, is not incompatible with the ultimate Christian responsibility, to speak the truth in love.



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