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What is truth?

It’s a fair question. People talk about relative truth a lot these days – the idea that truth depends on your own position. “Your truth is different to my truth,” is a neat way of sidestepping the issue.

Is there such a thing as absolute truth? And if there is, how do we recognise it?

The question, “What is truth?” happened to fall out of the mouth of a Roman governor in the most significant trial in history. The man standing in front of him looked quite pathetic. He’d been arrested, spat at, beaten and mocked. His followers had scattered. His fellow Jews said he was a threat to the nation, that he claimed to be a king. The governor saw through them. He was used to political manipulation. He knew people would make any claim to get what they wanted.

“Are you the king of the Jews,” he asked. He didn’t get the answer he expected. He thought the prisoner would deny it, or maybe fly into a mad rage against the oppression of Rome. He did neither. The man, whose name was Jesus, looked back at him and seemed to take his question as a serious enquiry – a search for truth.

The governor, Pilate, scoffed at the way this bedraggled Jew spoke to him. He was a Roman. If truth came from anywhere it would come from the power of Rome. As governor, he was the arbiter of truth in this region. Didn’t this fool understand that?

“My kingdom,” explained Jesus, “is not of this world.”

Pilate knew no other world. He knew no other truth. But Jesus had more to say.

“I came to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

It was an outrageous insult. This helpless, disgraced Jew dared to stand before the might of Rome and demand the governor’s allegiance – challenged him to trust his word as the essence of truth. It was absurd. It was ridiculous. And yet here was a man who seemed to speak not from self-interest or a position of power but from some different source.

Who knows what thoughts ran through the governor’s mind as he weighed up the words and the life of this man? In the end he took the easy way out. He sidestepped the issue. I imagine a wry smile on his lips as he throws back the dismissive question, “What is truth?”

It’s so easy to just leave it unanswered. Easy to be sceptical about anything that’s not straightforward. Easy to sidestep the questions about who Jesus was and is. But if you are genuinely looking to discover answers then you have to be open to surprises.

(based on John 18: 28-40)

Chris Maggs