“I’m not sure what to do,” my friend lamented to me. “If I respond, I may just stir things up even more. On the other hand, if I remain quiet, people are likely think I have something to hide.” My friend is a public servant, working in one of those jobs that no matter what he does he creates detractors, if not right out enemies. I asked him once why he did it. He looked at me like I had just arrived from an alien world and then told me. “I do it for the same reason you do what you do. It’s who I am and what I was put here to do.” Ouch!

What do you do when someone is spreading false tales about you? My friend and I continued our conversation. Sometimes one has to take a stand. When no one else is telling the truth, doesn’t the situation demand that you do so? Yet, sometimes remaining quiet is the way to still the storm. I ventured to remind him that those of us who knew him knew the truth and were not going to be swayed by lies. For several minutes we bounced such ideas around. We both knew that the decision as to what to do was his and that I was not going to tell him what he should do. His last word that day was, “I know what is being said is not true, but if a lie is told often enough it can come to be heard as truth.”

In the days since that discussion, I’ve thought of and prayed for my friend. I suspect that he will “lose” no matter what he does. Most days, I think if I were him I would remain quiet . . . but his last words haunt me. If a lie is told often enough it can come to be heard as truth.

I thought of those words as I read Jesus’ story about two men who went to pray. Like most “good” readers, I’ve usually identified with the tax collector—the good guy. I’ve always seen the other guy as a pompous hypocrite who played a role he knew to be false. Now I wonder. Did he know the role he played was false or did he believe he was the man he portrayed himself to be?

If a lie is told often enough it can come to be heard as truth, my friend had said. If a lie is lived long enough the one living it may come to believe it is real. Jesus said of the other guy that he left the hour of prayer no different than when he came—not justified.

When we read that story today, I fear we are so busy applauding the justified sinner that we miss the real tragedy of the story: that the other guy left unjustified and didn’t even know it. He couldn’t know it . . . couldn’t know it because he had lived the lie so long he had come to believe it. The man he pretended to be came to be the only man he could see.

Two men went up to pray. The one who did was the one who was who he was and who knew God was other.

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