Truth to Power – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Matthew 10:26-33, 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time


When I was still in school many years ago, I signed a petition. We were requesting for a change of professor. The petition was our last resort. We had already made more diplomatic requests but they all fell on deaf ears. Finally, the administration honored our petition, and we got a new teacher. The old one never spoke to us again though, not one word. And he wanted to find out who started the petition.

Well, I’m on the other side of the fence now, a professor myself, with more authority than I had as a student; more power and sway. If my students ever signed a petition to replace me, it would probably sting like hell, too! Who knows? I might also want to find out who hatched the dirty plan. It’s always been like that: when someone speaks truth to authority, truth stinks and stings.

Many of us hold some power over others. And we have to admit, the higher we climb that ladder, the more averse we seem to become to someone who speaks truth to power. The higher we go, the more balat-sibuyas we seem to be when someone calls out the wrong that we do, and worse, the harm that we do. Funny but once upon a time, we were actually reluctant to accept the position. “I’m not worthy,” we said. “I’m not as good a leader as you think,” we said. “Can I just be a follower, please?” we said. Back then, we knew and admitted the truth about our unfitness. Now that we’re up higher, the air must really be thinner, no? Because why are we hypersensitive when someone speaks truth to our power now?

Jesus pressed his friends to “speak in the light” what they heard in whispers, to “proclaim on the housetops” what they spoke in the dark. “Proclaim the message of the Reign of God bravely,” in other words. Jesus knew that his message had two opposite effects. It consoled the powerless but it stung the powerful. Stinging the powerful was scary enough to keep his friends to just whisper the message, and keep it in the “down low,” the dark. That’s why Jesus insisted they proclaim the message out in the open, loudly, clearly, fearlessly—and be ready to make a big stink!

When you don’t do the ritual washing before a meal, for example, then say out loud that it’s not what people eat which makes them unclean but the malice in the heart—you’re not just speaking the truth. Truth stings the power. When you invite yourself to stay in the house of a notorious tax collector, then say out loud that salvation has come to this house—you’re not just speaking the truth. Truth chastises the power. When you heal on a Sabbath and justify it by saying out loud that the Sabbath was made for people, not the other way around—you’re not just speaking the truth. Truth insults the power. To the poor and the browbeaten, Jesus’ message was a breath of fresh air. To the hierarchs and authorities, however, it reeked of unwashed heathens.

Sisters and brothers, when we speak truth to power, we suffer retaliation more often than get away unscathed. Look at Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, our very own Jose Rizal. Today, Dr. Lee Wen Liang of Wuhan, the Black Lives Matter protesters, our very own Maria Ressa. When we’re on the other side of the fence, when we are the power, we’re often allergic to feedback and correction. So, we hit right back. Remember, though, that this happens not just in politics or business or the army. You and I know it also happens in schools, parishes, seminaries, and religious houses. Speakers of truth are gunned down, at the very worst. At the very least, they’re blackballed and left to fall through the cracks.

What the weak apostles didn’t know, though, was that their authorities were just as scared as they. We see this even today. People who love power more than they love people—they’re really cowardly. Stripped of their power, they feel naked and worthless. Why do you think they love power more than they love the truth? Truth strips us bare. It sets us free, yes; but only after stripping us bare.

“Don’t be afraid of those who can kill the body but can’t kill the soul.” Jesus finally assures his friends. “Be afraid of him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. All who acknowledge me (the Truth) before others, I will acknowledge before the Father. All who deny me (the Truth) I will deny before God.” History has always proven Jesus right: human authorities and powers never have the last word, no. God has the last word; always has, always will.

How does this sound to us, sisters and brothers? Are we consoled? Or are we disturbed? What we feel might actually reveal which side of the fence we’re on. So… are we on the side of truth? Or are we on the side of power?

*image from the Internet

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