A cartoon I once saw featured a boss speaking to his staff. “Honesty may be the best policy,” he said, “but it’s not our company policy.” And while it may be funny, this cartoon reflects the sad truth that lying in our society has reached epidemic proportions. For instance, newspaper headlines speak of corporate scandals, fraudulent accounting practices, and insider trading. In schools today, surveys have shown that a majority of students cheat on tests or download research papers which they try to pass off as their own work. Job seekers pad their résumés with fake or exaggerated information. Car odometers are rolled back, expense accounts are padded, and spouses fib about how much they spent on that new dress or set of golf clubs. A recent university study revealed that a quarter of people’s “most serious lies” related to an affair. And considering that Jesus in today’s gospel spoke of the need to pay one’s taxes, it needs to be said that tax cheating is all too common.
Jesus gave this teaching after he had been approached by his opponents. They said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” The irony is, when they said that they believed Jesus to teach the truth, they were lying through their teeth. In a sense, all of us can relate to this experience of our Lord, because all of us have been lied to. And let’s face it: We’ve probably told a few lies ourselves.
People tell lies for all sorts of reasons. In our highly competitive society, , lies can help one gain an advantage over others and stand out from the crowd. And if everyone else is doing it, that makes it all the easier! Some people lie to get their “fifteen seconds” of fame- like the guy a few years ago who made up the story about witnessing one of the sniper attacks.
Other people, seeking revenge against someone they believe has hurt them, may start a vicious rumor. Some experience a thrill from lying because it gives them a feeling of having power over others. It’s not uncommon to lie in order to avoid punishment. You may remember Susan Smith, who in 1994 strapped her two boys into her car and then sent them into a lake to drown. If you recall, she tried to stay out of trouble by going on TV, saying her sons had been kidnapped, and pleading for their safe return. Finally, low self-esteem can lead some to exaggerate or even make up accomplishments or achievements, in order to feel better about themselves or impress others. For instance, phony war stories allow people with feelings of inferiority to be linked with the virtues of loyalty and courage.
Most of us believe that we do what we do for good reasons and with honest intentions. Therefore, when we lie, it’s easy to rationalize that what we’re doing is justified or even the right thing to do. We can think things like: “Nobody’s really getting hurt, so there’s really nothing wrong.” Or “I cheated on taxes or insurance- but only to get the money I rightly deserve.” Or “If everyone else lies on their resume, I better do it too so I won’t lose that job offer I want.” Or “If I told the truth about the way I feel, we’d just get in a fight and things would become even worse.”
As Christians, however, we are called to honesty and truth. This doesn’t mean that we have to be a bull in a china shop. We do need to be prudent and discrete in revealing the truth, because we don’t want to needlessly hurt or antagonize others. And this doesn’t mean that everyone has the right to hear the truth from us. To give an extreme example, no one would have to tell the Nazis where a Jewish family was hiding.
Nevertheless, God insists that we be honest people. As we all know, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” is one of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, God himself is truth, Jesus his Son reveals the truth, and they have sent the Holy Spirit of truth into our lives that we might walk in the truth and bear witness to it. Any lie, then, is really an offense against God himself.
Honesty and truthfulness are also requirements for justice and are essential for a civil society. “Men could not live with one another,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another.” This is because lies always hurt those around us- even when we think they don’t.
In addition, Jesus has promised that the truth will set us free. It will free us from having to cover our tracks, live with shame and guilt, and the fear of our lies being discovered and exposed. The truth will liberate us to take off our masks and just be ourselves. It will also result in better relationships, less stress for ourselves, and less anger from others.
There is a cost to being honest! We may lose that job offer to the person who lied on their resume. We may have to “face the music” for something we’ve done or accept the reality of who we are, and not who we’ve been pretending to be. Our co-workers may resent us, because as one human resources expert has said, “employees who operate honestly and ethically often inspire anger, guilt, and resentment (from others).” Maybe we’ll end up with less money than we may have had if we’d fudged our tax returns. Nevertheless, we’ll be blessed with the assurance that God smiles upon our honesty, and we can unite our suffering with those of Jesus upon the cross.
As Mother Teresa once wrote, “If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; be honest and frank anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/101611.cfm