Mercury and the Woodcutter

January 19, 2022

In a poll of children asking them about favorite wisdom phrases the winner was, “Honesty is the best policy” It has been one of the most quoted maxims by our founding fathers as well as many other countries than our own.

Perhaps its earliest use was as one of Aesop’s fables called “Mercury and the Woodcutter,” written at least 2,500 years old. The fable goes that an honest woodcutter lost his rusty old ax in a river, and began to cry as he wondered how he would take care of his family. At that moment, the god Mercury broke through the surface of the water, holding up a splendid golden ax. “Could this be yours, old man?” “Oh, I wish that it were,” sighed the woodcutter. Mercury dove back into the icy-cold water and this time brought up a magnificent silver ax. “So this is yours,” said the god, offering the man the wonderful ax. “If only it were,” lamented the woodcutter. “But my ax is old, and rusted, and chipped on the head.” Mercury, pleased with the man’s honesty, plunged into the river a third time and surfaced with the woodsman’s used ax. “You are an honest man. I want you to take the golden ax and the silver ax as rewards for telling the truth.” Thanking his benefactor, the woodsman ran home to tell his wife of his good fortune.

As the story spread, a neighbor, who was also a woodcutter, rushed to the same spot on the riverbank and tossed his only ax into the deep water. Suddenly Mercury broke through the water’s surface bearing a golden ax. “Is this the ax you lost, my friend?”

“Yes, yes, it is,” lied the man, greedily reaching for the magnificent tool. Mercury tossed the golden ax into the water. “I deny you that one,” said the god, “and your own ax.” “Please, just get me my old ax,” pleaded the man. “I won’t be able to support my wife and children.” Mercury departed, and the woodsman cried to himself, “Honesty is the best policy.”

Written about 1000 years earlier is the ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:16)”. I believe this is a commandment, not a suggestion. I recently saw a drama where the heroine was asked if she knew where the hero of the story was. His life was in danger if she told the truth. She lied. Would it have gone better if she had told the truth?

What would you have done in that situation? We encounter times in life where it seems telling the truth is going to be costly. But shouldn’t we lie if someone’s life is at stake. I think I would lie in such a situation but that is because Lying never occurs in a vacuum. There would have to be a whole series of lies and deceit to occur for the above scenario to become reality. That one must lie to protect a loved one is a clear indication that their lives had spiraled out of control, and all the lies had proven that lying is always bad. If I found myself in such a situation I would lie to protect a loved one. Then I would seek God’s forgiveness and work to help the loved one work through all the lies that threatened to destroy their life.

Because we are always tempted by, and struggling with sin, there is one more truth that is the greatest truth of all, and it is not a belief statement, it is a person. Jesus Christ is that truth (John 14:6). God sent his son Jesus into the world to reveal God’s love for each of us. That love brings with it forgiveness and freedom from sin. It is the power of that forgiveness that can bring new life and hope into our lives when they are ruled by too many lies, and it is time to base our lives on the truths of life, the truths God has given us in the Bible.

What is the biggest lie you have ever told? How did that work out now that you have the wisdom of hindsight? Do you live believing Honesty is always the best policy? Can you think of a time that you practiced honesty when it was hard, or that you had to pay a price to be honest? If you have children, have you ever lied to them? If so, have you told them you are sorry? It is never to late to say you are sorry. Is there someone you need to tell you are sorry for lying to? Make a plan to correct your sin, and say a prayer for God to help you.