Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ. . . . Therefore, putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.— Ephesians 4:15, 25
One day the holy priest St. John of Kanty was walking down a country road when he was stopped by robbers; they took the money in his bag and demanded to know whether he had any more. John said no, and the robbers departed. Immediately after this, however, John remembered that he had some coins sewn into his cloak, so he hurried after the highwaymen, caught up with them, and, apologizing for his error, handed over the additional coins. The robbers were so amazed by his honesty that they returned everything they had taken from him.
The type of holy and absolute honesty demonstrated by St. John of Kanty is very surprising to us today — perhaps, in part, because our society has made honesty a relative thing. The Seventh Commandment does not say, “You shall not steal unless it’s something you really need or want.” The Eighth Commandment does not say, “You shall not bear false witness unless you have a really good reason.” These commandments call us to be honest, for, as God’s children, we are meant to imitate our Father — and no falsehood will ever be found in Him.
Do We Have to Be As Honest as St. John?
John’s actions certainly went above and beyond the call of duty, for while we’re expected to be honest, there are certain limits. For instance, we’re not morally required to reveal information to people who have no legitimate authority or right to ask it of us, and — while outright lying should be avoided — we’re entitled to use mental reservations in answering unjust questions.
St. Athanasius practiced this sort of “silent honesty” when he was being pursued down a river by some enemies who didn’t know him by sight. From his boat, he turned back toward them, and when they asked, “Have you seen Athanasius the bishop?” he responded truthfully, “It’s only a short time since he passed this very spot, going up the river.” By practicing our Lord’s advice to be as clever as snakes and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16), Athanasius managed to escape.
Deceptions, of course, can also serve selfish purposes. Before her conversion, St. Joan Delanoue was unconcerned with the plight of the poor. She would deliberately wait to purchase food for the evening meal; that way, if beggars came to her door earlier, she could truthfully tell them, “There’s no food in the house.” This ruse — in which honesty was turned into a servant of greed — was common knowledge to Joan’s neighbors; they were disedified by her stinginess, but, after her conversion, they were amazed by her newfound generosity.
How Jesus Approached Zacchaeus
Jesus praised honesty, while also encouraging those who had fallen short of this ideal, as we see in the story of Zacchaeus. As the chief tax collector of Jericho, Zacchaeus was a very wealthy man, and the implication is obvious: he acquired most of his wealth by cheating people. This is why people murmured in shock and disapproval when Jesus invited Himself to Zacchaeus’s house — a gentle, non-threatening way of calling a known sinner to a change of heart.
This most unpopular of men responded wholeheartedly, saying, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (Luke 19:8) This was quite a promise, for everyone in earshot knew it wasn’t a question of whether Zacchaeus had cheated anyone. Redeeming his pledge would have taken most, if not all, of his wealth. The importance of honesty, and also our Lord’s recognition of Zacchaeus’s sincerity, is demonstrated by Jesus’ words: “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:9)
It was from tax collectors — men universally assumed to be greedy and dishonest — that Jesus chose one of His Apostles (Mark 2:14). We have no way of knowing whether St. Matthew was personally dishonest, relatively honest, or completely honest prior to his calling — but his eager response to Christ, and his years of service as an apostle and evangelist, indicate that from the time He was called, his life was marked by integrity and righteousness.
The Value of Honesty
The Church has always valued honesty, for God’s grace can be fully active only within persons who humbly and truthfully admit their need for it. This is why, for instance, St. Ignatius of Loyola, following his conversion, prepared very carefully before making a general confession (when a person confesses the sins of his entire life). It took him three days to remember and write down all his sins. God rewarded this honesty by giving the founder of the Jesuits a profound understanding of the workings of the human soul.
Honesty is not only a matter of proclaiming the truth, but also of treating others justly — especially when someone’s life is at stake. The fourteenth-century nobleman St. Conrad of Piacenza was out hunting one day and ordered his attendants to flush out game by setting a fire. Unfortunately, a sudden wind carried the fire and from there it spread to the neighboring villages. Unable to extinguish the fire, Conrad and his attendants returned home, but a poor man gathering firewood was blamed for the disaster and sentenced to death. Learning of this, Conrad was filled with remorse and publicly admitted his responsibility. He was ordered to pay restitution for all the damage, which took virtually everything he owned, plus his wife’s dowry. Accepting this as a sign from God, the two of them gave away the remainder of their estate.
Honesty demands a suitable respect for other people’s property. St. Edward the Confessor, who became King of England in 1042, was told that a certain tax was still being levied on the people, even though its original purpose had long since passed. Seeing the vaults containing the money that had been raised in this way, the holy king exclaimed, “On every chest I see a black devil sitting and sticking his hooked claws into the gold. They are the rulers down here, not I. Let the money be distributed to the poor, and stop collecting the tax, and so we shall rid the realm of these devils.” On another occasion St. Edward’s keen sense of justice led him to order the return of money that had been collected as a gift to him from all his subjects — the poor included. He knew that divine riches cannot be mingled with earthly wealth that has been acquired in an unjust or uncharitable way.
We must take this lesson to heart. Ours is the richest society in history — and also one severely lacking in honesty and justice. Only if we as individuals and as a nation strive to be honest will we experience, in Jesus’ words, the truth that sets us free (John 8:32).
For Further Reflection
“God will not hear our prayers unless we acknowledge ourselves to be sinners. We do this when we ponder our own sins alone, and not those of our neighbor.” — St. Moses of Ethiopia
“Truly honest persons possess a harmonious and pleasant demeanor: nothing reproachable can be found in their actions, nothing inappropriate in their words, nothing indecent in their manner. Being spontaneous and respectful, their behavior wins the admiration and goodwill of all.” — St. Anthony of Padua
“Whoever manages his affairs with artifices and subterfuges offends the Providence of God and renders himself unworthy of His paternal care.” — St. Vincent de Paul
Something You Might Try
How do you develop the virtue of honesty if you’ve been lacking in it? The only way to become honest is by being honest. Start with yourself; admit your faults. Then be honest with God; admit your absolute need for Him. Then be honest with others; actively look for opportunities to tell the truth in situations when it goes against your own interests or when you’d normally lie.
When it comes to business and financial transactions, St. Francis de Sales offers us this advice: “Always be impartial and just in your deeds. Put yourself in your neighbor’s place, and then you will judge fairly. When you buy, act as though you were the seller, and when you sell, act as though you were the buyer, and you will buy and sell with justice.” Looking out for the interest of the other person, instead of your own, may strike you as self-defeating — but in fact, it’s a way of unlocking God’s blessings (for the Lord is never outdone in generosity), while giving you an inner peace that no amount of money can buy.
Other saintly resources from Fr. Joseph Esper can be found here on Catholic Exchange, such as in the article “Learning to Forgive Through the Saints.”
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems. It is available as a paperback or ebook from your favorite bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.