The boy snuck a look around the room. No one was watching except his buddy, so he surreptitiously slid one of the items into his pocket. Believing that his action had gone undetected, he then reached back into the container and openly picked up another…lollipop? The DumDum suckers an the front counter are free! You don’t have to steal them! Well yes…there is a one per customer limit, but…he’s going to steal a second free sucker? Having seen the boy’s actions, I suggested that he put back one of suckers and, as I steeled myself to lecture him, was stopped by an image of another young boy many years ago.
Was there ever anything as laughable as the “honor system”? You remember? You would be struggling with a civics test and the teacher would step out into the hall. “I’ll be right back, but until then, you’re all on the honor system.” The latch hadn’t snapped on the door before the whispering began. “What did you put down for number 16?” “Wow, that’s not anything close to what I wrote!” Erasers were plied and notes passed, as the honor system was relegated to the big round trash can beside the door the teacher had just exited. I was never one of the whisperers, since I was confident that if I were part of it, the transgressions would surely come to light and I would be served up as quickly as anyone else. I knew, contrary to the old saw, that there really was no honor among thieves, so the best defense was to keep my distance. In fairness, I have to say that my observation is that the honor system actually works with the honest. It’s the dishonest with whom the optimistic fallacy breaks down. Confronted with the chance to steal and cheat, thieves and cheaters will nearly always opt to stay in character.
What’s that? Oh yes! Another rabbit trail and no mention whatsoever of the other young boy. I saw the other boy in my memory as I thought about the stolen sucker today. It was 1964 and the young mother was tending all five children by herself as the little family trooped into the Kress department store. One daughter and four sons, ranging in age from seven to twelve, were more than a handful for her. Sure enough, while she wasn’t watching, the youngest made his way to the toy department, sighting the water guns he had been coveting for many trips prior to that day. With no one watching, one of the little plastic pistols made its way up the sleeve of the young man’s jacket, to stay there through the rest of the visit to that store and all the way home. The next day, water flew as the stolen weapon was used on the older brothers. As time passed, the guilt and worry about detection increased in the young man’s mind, so the toy was disposed of secretly. Forty-seven years later, I still remember the shame of being a thief and a liar.
I said earlier that the honor system works with honest people. But, that would mean…it doesn’t really work. At least, not if what we expect from it is for those within the system to do right. I have come to the conclusion that we are living under our Maker’s “honor system”, not because we can live up to its expectations, but because we can’t and it reminds us of what we are I’m confident that all of us have multiple examples of when we have had no honor. We are left free all of our lives to make choices and if you’re like me, the dishonest ones loom very large indeed. Many of you are not so stubborn and slow to learn as I, and therefore have fewer shameful memories to live with. Regardless, we all have sins to repent of, so the system has done its work. Now Grace can do its work.
I am going to continue to employ the honor system in the store with the kids. I’ll not hand the candy to the youngsters one at a time. The little metal bucket will stay at the end of the counter, waiting for them to come each afternoon and take just one. I want them to be able to learn the benefit of passing the test; the good feeling that honesty brings, and once in awhile, one of them will know the sinking feeling inside that dishonesty drags along with itself.
The opportunities to be ministers of God’s grace to others are not to be scorned.
“All the thieves will come confess,
And know that You are holy.
Will know that You are holy.”
(All The Poor And Powerless~Leslie Jordan & David Leonard)
“Honesty is praised, and starved.”
(Juvenal~Ancient Roman poet)