There’s a time for this and a time for that, writes the guy who wrote Ecclesiastes. There’s a time for transparency and a time for discretion. There’s a time for proclaiming the truth and a time for concealing the truth – even if it involved telling a lie because sometimes telling a lie is the lesser of two evils. Who decides which of two evils is the lesser? ‘Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?’ (Jesus, Luke 12.57)
Tell a lie or kill a baby? Tell a lie. Tell a lie or hand these two nice gents over to the military for certain execution? Tell a lie. Tell a lie or disobey the king? Tell a lie. Tell a lie or communicate one’s intentions clearly? Tell a lie.
Hang on, hang on! The first three make sense, sort of. But telling a lie rather than simply saying what you intend to do? Isn’t that pushing things a bit too far!
OK, let’s look at these four situations, all of which are from the Bible.
1. Midwives and babies
In Exodus 1 Pharaoh is enslaving the Hebrews. But that isn’t enough. He decides he wants to kill off the Hebrews – subtly. So he tells the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, to kill all the baby boys. They ‘fear God’ and disobey Pharaoh. When asked why they tell Pharaoh a lie about Hebrew women giving birth more quickly than Egyptian women. The midwives commit two crimes: they disobey the king and they cover up that disobedience with a lie. And we applaud them for it.
2. Hospitality for spies
In Joshua 2 two Israelite spies enter the city of Jericho and take up residence with Rahab. The king of Jericho hears that these men are spies and tells Rahab to hand them over. She tells the king’s men a lie which sends them off on a wild goose chase, while helping the spies escape to safety. Like the midwives, Rahab commits two crimes: harbouring enemies of the State and covering it up with a lie. And we applaud her for it.
3. When the King says, ‘Lie!’
In Jeremiah 38 the prophet Jeremiah has a secret conversation with King Zedekiah. At the end of it the king says to Jeremiah, ‘Do not let anyone know about this conversation, or you may die. If the officials hear that I talked with you, and they come to you and say, “Tell us what you said to the king and what the king said to you; do not hide it from us or we will kill you,” then tell them, “I was pleading with the king not to send me back to Jonathan’s house to die there.”’ (Jer. 38.24-26) The officials asked Jeremiah what he and the king had been talking about, and Jeremiah lied to them, as instructed by the king.
4. To go or not to go
In our final example the brothers of a well-known prophet tell him to go to Jerusalem for a certain festival. The well-known prophet says he is not going to this festival. His brothers leave for the festival, while he remains in the north of the country. But then, ‘he also went, not publicly, but in secret’. Did he change his mind? Did he misinform his brothers because he wanted to go secretly? The text does not tell us. The prophet in question is of course Jesus (John 7.1-10).
Of snakes and doves
Jesus himself tells us, ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no.’ (Matt. 5.37) But the context here is the making of oaths, not transparency of language. He also tells us to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (Matt. 10.16). As if to illustrate this he tells a parable of a shrewd manager who essentially robs his boss – and we applaud the manager (Luke 16.1-9).
Snakes and doves. Jesus says he is sending his disciples out ‘like sheep among wolves’. Be completely transparent about everything and they would end up physically dead. Compromise themselves with deceit and duplicity and they would end up morally dead. Commenting on this verse, Tom Wright writes, ‘Without innocence, shrewdness becomes manipulative; without shrewdness, innocence becomes naivety.’ (2002, p.117)
There was a time when the right thing for Shiprah, Rahab and Puah to do was to tell a lie and save lives. There was a time when the right thing for Jeremiah and Jesus to do was to mislead those with whom they were conversing. However there is also a time to tell the truth and tell it loudly and clearly, and that time is pretty much most of the time. Telling a lie or misleading your audience can only be the result of deep reflection, the lesser of two evils and the wisdom that comes from fearing the Lord.
Wright N. T. (2002) Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. London: SPCK.
Picture: clock at the Ka’rimu conference centre: see this post.