“So give Your servant an understanding heart to judge
Your people to discern between good and evil.”
A few years ago, I approached a friend of mine (let’s call him “Bill”) who was just about to retire from public school administration after 30 years in the field. He was planning to spend the first two months of his retirement in the Bahamas. His wife, “Jane,” had just recently retired from the social security administration, and between the two of them, I could tell they were more than comfortable. They owned two vacation homes, and–okay, I admit–I did look up Bill’s salary on one of those transparent government sites, and he was closing out his public life at $320,000 a year, salary and benefits.
I’m not coveting Bill’s life, believe me, because I have an enormous amount of respect for any civil servant who has the patience to calm down all the various, shrill constituencies you have to face in that profession, but Bill had just done something that really annoyed me. Bill’s a believer. We don’t go to church together, but a young friend of mine, “Jack,” had fallen on hard times, lost his wife, basically, to some weird cult, and had just been evicted from his home. He had this gloriously restored 1965 Mustang that was his pride and joy. He was going to have to sell that, and just about everything else he had, just to get a new start.
Well, Bill was never a big fan of Jack. Whenever they talked theology, Bill dropped the “heretic” card on him all the time. (I think Jack’s knowledge of scripture unnerved Bill; he was a young man who knew quite a bit about scripture and church history.) Jack wasn’t cocky, but he was confident in a way that Bill just couldn’t abide, so when things went bad for Jack, I could tell that Bill was taking some spiritual pleasure in the thing. That annoyed me, but not as much as the offer Bill made for Jack’s Mustang. This was a car that had won competitions. It had recently been appraised at $42,000.
Bill offered him $7,000 for it, and when Jack hesitated, Bill lowered the offer to $5,000.
Now you have to remember here that Jack was a broken man — utterly broken. His eyes were swollen. He confessed to us that he thought he was under God’s curse. He couldn’t believe how quickly his wife’s personality had changed, how she had become a different person entirely, and he just looked like the loneliest man on earth.
“$5,000?” Jack said. “Whatever. I’ll take it.”
“Oh, c’mon,” I said. “Bill. You can’t be serious.”
Bill actually put a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Listen, Jack, sometimes we need a humbling.”
Piracy described as a Sunday School lesson. I went home that night furious. I vented to my wife for a while, but I tried to cool down. I saw Bill two weeks later. He was handing off the keys to his house to a temporary renter, pocketing a stack of one hundred dollar bills, and he was radiant at the thought of spending the summer in the Bahamas.
“Bill,” I said. “I have a problem. I was wondering if you have one of your district friends look into this for me. It’s not in your former jurisdiction, but you might know someone.”
I told him the story of two teachers in a neighboring district. The news had come to me through a friend of my wife who was fit to be tied.
“It’s hard to believe,” I began, “but there’s a young 4th grade teacher who is wheel chair bound. She had an accident last summer and she’s just getting back into teaching without the use of her legs. Well, it’s a really old building and she needs help getting into and out of her classroom until they get a few modifications made. This is the hard to believe part, but a little back-story: one of her colleagues has it in her head, that, prior to the accident, this young wheel-chair teacher had the hots for her husband. Everyone swears it’s not true, but she’s very attractive and so this is where you’ll get fighting mad.”
“What?” Bill asked.
“Her colleague was assigned to help her into and out of the classroom, and she’s extorting her for it.”
“Twenty bucks a day.”
Bill’s eyes widened. “Are you F-ing kidding me? Do they even know what kind of MASSIVE lawsuit could be in the offing for that? Who was this? I want to know.”
I looked over at Jack’s beautiful black Mustang sitting in Bill’s garage.
“You,” I said.
Okay, so there is no “Bill” or “Jack.” I have no such friends. I tried to modernize the situation to illustrate the concept. The difference between the Bible and our version of it never stops surprising me. We see, over and over again, the people of God using outright trickery and deception in order to find out the truth about each other. They invent stories about unrelated people to keep the rebuked parties off guard. Nathan doesn’t confront the king directly. He tells a story of horrible cruelty and allows the king to do what we all do — wax angry at other peoples’ sins while we’re easy on our own. Solomon has to pretend as though he’s about to cut the baby in half — in order to find out its real mother. Joseph planted evidence in his brothers’ saddle bags, so as to find out, without doubt, if they had changed.
There is trickery in the Bible we probably should NOT emulate (Jacob fooling his father, for example), but there really does seem to be something called “a lie in pursuit of the truth.” Nathan, a prophet of God, fabricated a story about a man who owned a single lamb that was taken from him by a wealthy and selfish man. This lie convicted David and allowed him to understand his own sin. I believe there is also the fictional story, or parable, that is not literally true, but certainly not false either. Jesus tells dozens of them. They have this virtue, among others: no living person is specifically slandered by them, but all living persons, born with ears to hear, benefit from them.
Fictions, and sometimes outright lies, tell the truth — and, yet, how often, as believers do we allow ourselves this method of inquiry? We proceed — gentle as rattlesnakes and wise as idiot pigeons — as though people naturally tell the truth. They don’t, though, do they?
The Bible gives us tools, but most of the time we’re too “good” to use them.