Freedom and Commitment, Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), June 30, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Thirteenth Sunday in OT, C
June 30, 2013
1 Kings 19:16,19-21; Gal 5:1,13-18; Lk 9:51-62

“For freedom, Christ has set us free.” These words from today’s second reading from St. Paul to the Galatians point to two of the most crucial truths for us to grasp in the Christian life, what Christ gained for us and what our freedom is for. All that Jesus has done for us — by entering the human race as a baby, by his teaching, by the sacraments he instituted, by his enormous suffering, gruesome death and glorious resurrection — was to set us free, free from the power of sin and from the death to which sin always leads. But that liberation by Christ has a purpose: Christ has set us free “for freedom.” He has liberated us in order that we may truly be free, but such freedom is not a given. That’s why St. Paul tells us, “So stand firm [in freedom] and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” He has opened up the prison cell and led us out into the light, but now we need to use that great gift of freedom to continue to follow him rather than to return to the slavery of sin.

About five years ago when I was at St. Anthony’s in New Bedford, one Sunday there was a new parishioner sitting all alone in the front pew. He was a short guy wearing a tank top with huge muscles and tattoos all over his arms. You could tell readily that he really hadn’t been to Mass in a while; he was constantly looking over his shoulders to learn from those behind him whether he should stand, sit or kneel. At the end of the Mass, when he came to greet me, I stuck out my hand and he just gave me a big hug and introduced himself. “Father, my name is Sunny and I just got out of ten years at Cedar Junction and I’m serious about never going back there.” I told him that he’s off to a good start by coming to Mass and asking God for his help and then we had a nice conversation about how he could form good habits. Sunny knew that the rate of recidivism among inmates was very high and he didn’t want to be among them. But it was really hard for him to form the new friendships and virtues necessary to stay out. And after a couple of months, he got back involved with the crowd that had gotten him into trouble the first time, violated his parole and landed back in jail.

It’s a lesson for all of us, because in the spiritual life we’re all recidivists. Christ has set us free but we need to take advantage of the gift of that freedom to follow him further and further away from the self-imposed imprisonment of sin. That’s the choice we face: to follow Christ freely or to squander our freedom and return to slavery. The readings today help us to see this choice and strengthen us to choose well.

How we lost our freedom

To grasp the gift and task of our freedom, it’s important to understand how it was originally lost so that we can see how people still throw it away today. Adam and Eve were created totally free, formed in the image and likeness of God who is supremely free. They were able without restraint to be who God had created them to be, to be true to themselves and their nature. Their freedom was in order that they might love each other and love God, since love is the free gift of oneself to another. God had given only one limit to their freedom. In the imagery of Genesis, they were instructed not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which was a symbol that they were not free to pretend that they were God. And that’s how the devil got them, deceiving them to eat of that fruit, saying that by doing so, they would be like God, knowing (i.e., determining) good and evil. God’s intention for them all along was to be like Him who is Love by using their freedom for each other. But they abused that freedom, ate of the fruit, and we know the consequences. They began to distrust each other, covering up their vulnerable parts lest the other hurt them. They began to distrust even God, hiding themselves from him in the garden. Their fig leaves and the bush underneath which they tried to conceal themselves from God were the straightjackets and prison cells their abuse of freedom led to. Their sin brought them not more freedom, but less, and their heart from that point forward would need to battle to love rather than hurt each other, to give rather than take, to serve rather than use. That’s the dramatic risk God took in creating us free. While we can use our freedom well, we can also abuse it to the detriment of ourselves, others and our relationship with God, as we in Adam and Eve’s sin and even more clearly in the next generation, when Cain used his free choice to murder his innocent brother Abel. When we use our freedom well, we are most in the image and likeness of God, but when we misuse it, we can behave according to the wishes of the devil.

How we secure and squander our freedom

So with our freedom, there is a great responsibility to stay free, to develop and grow our freedom and not submit again to the yoke of the slavery of sin. How do we remain free? How do with strengthen ourselves in freedom? Jesus told us in St. John’s Gospel: “If you keep my Word, then you will know the Truth and the Truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). To remain free, we must live according to the Truth, the truth about right and wrong, the truth about who we are, the truth about our origin in God and our calling to a life of loving communion with Him. When we fail to do so, we are not free, and the consequences for us are severe. That’s why St. Paul emphatically implores the Galatians and us, “Do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh,” because when we abuse our freedom in the same way Adam and Eve did, we enslave ourselves to our appetites, instincts, and fallen nature, and that leads us on a path of personal and public destruction.

We have seen a dramatic illustration of this during the past week in the disturbing Aaron Hernandez saga. Here was a man who was not born into the greatest of circumstances, but he used his God-given athletic talents to make something of himself, getting a full scholarship to college, becoming an all-American, getting drafted by the Patriots, signing a lucrative contract, buying a house in North Attleboro most parishioners here would dream of obtaining and having a tremendous opportunity to do so much good. But how did he use his freedom? He misused it to enslave himself to a life of sin, from surrounding himself with questionable friends, to frequenting strip clubs in Boston and Providence in the early hours of the morning, to what he’s now accused of doing, collaborating in the execution of at least one man if not others. At a human level externally he’s squandered his freedom and is now incarcerated in Faunce Corner and may end up being imprisoned for life. But well before he ended up in the Bristol County House of Correction, he was locked up inside a life of the flesh, a life in which he became enslaved by lust and it seems by vengeance and violence as well.

The Fortnight for Freedom

We are also witnessing a much larger battle over the meaning and purpose of freedom, which is the reason why the Church in our country is in the midst of the Fortnight for Freedom, to pray, study and act in defense of our religious freedom, which is endangered in so many ways. In today’s reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, he describes an antimony, a basic incompatibility between two ways of living, the slavery of “life according to the flesh” that seeks to “gratify the desire of the flesh” and the freedom of “life according to the Holy Spirit.” The battle we are facing today has come about because many in our culture believe that freedom is the license to indulge the desires of the flesh without constraint and who know want to compel us against our religious freedom to sanction it and approve of it. The Obama Administration’s HHS Mandate, for example, is all about promoting the libertinism of the sexual revolution and forcing those business owners and even Church institutions like universities and hospitals to have to pay for free abortion-causing drugs, contraception and sterilizations. But the biggest example of this antimony is over same-sex marriage, about which the Supreme Court gave two very problematic 5-4 decisions this week. Back in 2009, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a talk at Georgetown University in which she outlined the State Department’s reducing the United State’s praiseworthy defense of religious freedom abroad to a much more limited defense of “freedom of worship.” The United States government would still defend the right of Muslims to go to the Mosque on Friday, Jews the synagogue on Saturday and Christians to Church on Sunday against brutal dictatorships or cultural movements trying to prevent this, but they would no longer defend true religious freedom, which means the ability to live by the moral teachings of our faith Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The reason, she said, was in order to promote the “right” for people to “love in the way they choose.” That was her euphemism to describe the so-called right of those with same-sex attractions to marry. She knew that the religions of the world are the ones who rise up against the redefinition of marriage to be something other than what God intended and history up until now has always recognized, and the only way to push the same-sex pseudomarriage revolution was to eliminate true religious freedom. And that foreign policy objective was also the subtle domestic policy priority as well. Religions, especially the Catholic Church, stand in the way of this false “freedom” to gratify the flesh — and have others praise it and pay for it — that is being pushed by the secularist libertines, and that’s why we’re now engaged in a multi-front battle to defend what the founding fathers enshrined in the First Amendment.

What freedom is and isn’t

We need to be clear about what freedom is and what it isn’t. Freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever we want, without the interference of anyone else. It’s not the power to pretend that one is God, determining good and evil, even deciding over life and death. That is an abuse of freedom, an immature hedonism that leads to enslavement to unrestrained cravings and addictions. Freedom, rather, is the capacity to act in accordance with the truth about who we are in God’s image and likeness. It’s the ability to live with virtue, the self-mastery to serve one another through love, as St. Paul tells us today.

Our culture is deeply confused about this, as are many Catholics. Some clamor that in the name of freedom, women must have the ability to choose to assassinate their own little boy or girl in the womb, without realizing that this enslaves rather than liberates women, as so many who have made that tragic choice have lamented inconsolably afterward for decades. Others claim that they need to be free to unite with whomever they want, even if it means abandoning their responsibilities to their present spouse and family, but we know that this is just a path of personal and familial destruction. Others say they need to be free to smoke pot or to have an arsenal of automatic assault weapons, but what they fail to see is that such behavior enslaves them rather than liberates them and makes them happy. As St. Paul reminds us today, the purpose of freedom is not to enable self-indulgence and the gratification of the desires of the flesh, but to be self-sacrificial and to live in accordance with the truth about love, which Christ has revealed to us. We’re raising a culture of Aaron Hernandezes, all under the name of freedom and reaping what we sow.

St. Paul describes that the fundamental choice we have to make in life, the litmus test for whether we will strengthen and expand our freedom or diminish and lose it, is dependent on whether we choose to live by the Spirit or live by the flesh. The more we choose to live by God, by the Spirit, but the truth God has revealed, by self-mastery and responsibility and care for others, the more free we will be. The more we abuse our freedom to live apart from God and his truth, the more we will voluntarily squander our freedom and became slaves.

This choice between living according to God or living according to the flesh is what the dramatic Gospel scene is about today. It puts into relief what are freedom is for and challenges us to see if we are truly being led by the Spirit.

Using our freedom well to make a total commitment to Christ

We know that 24 times in the Gospel Jesus says the words, “Follow me!” Each of us has received that calling from Jesus. It is an appeal to our freedom. The biggest, most important decision of our life, is to use our freedom fully and make real commitment to follow Jesus along the path out of slavery, the path of real freedom and love, the path that leads to happiness, holiness and heaven.

We know that those who are the real heroes in life have used their freedom to follow Jesus on this path. That’s what the Blessed Virgin Mary did. It’s what 11 of the 12 apostles it. It’s what Mary Magdalene did and our patroness St. Bernadette did. It’s what so many of the “heroes of faith” that you’ve been submitting for the bulletin throughout this Year of Faith have done, making the choice to pray, to serve with love, to be faithful to God, the marriages, their families, the sick, the little guy and so many others. These are the people who were truly free, and even though they had to deal with heartbreak and suffering, they were the ones who inspired us by their happiness and holiness.

We know that many others used their freedom to refuse to follow Jesus. We see this tragic decision in the Samaritans in today’s Gospel, who would not welcome Jesus at all into their town because he was preparing to go to Jerusalem (where he would die for their sins!). We see it in the many Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees who used their freedom to conspire to murder Jesus. We see it in Pontius Pilate and Herod who, instead of using their freedom to protect a man they knew was innocent, used it to have him crucified. We see it in the Rich Young Man, who when given a choice to grasp onto the hand of Jesus who wanted to lead him to perfection, instead chose to grasp on to his many material possessions. We see it in all those disciples of Jesus who, as soon as he revealed to them the mystery of the Eucharist, decided that the teaching was too hard to endure and abandoned him.

In the Gospel we have several examples that should hit very close to home. These were people who wanted to follow Jesus but who felt bound by something that they let prevent them from making the commitment to follow Jesus fully. In their example, we see that it was not sin that enslaved them, but good things that they had made idols that prevented them from following the one true God.

The first person told Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” but Jesus wanted him to be clear about the cost of discipleship: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was saying that anyone who determined to follow him needs to know that it’s not going to be a comfortable or easy life, but a life of self-denying love and the embracing of a daily Cross. We don’t know what decision this man made, but the context implies that he preferred having a pillow than following a pillowless Redeemer.

Next Jesus explicitly called a man to follow him but the person replied, “Let me first go and bury my father.” It’s important to note that there’s no indication that his father was dead or even about to die. What is more likely is that the man was a first-born son who in Jewish culture would be the one responsible for caring for his father in old age. Therefore, what this man was basically saying is, “Jesus, my father is more important than you and I’ll come to follow you in ten, twenty, thirty or more years when my father is in the ground.” Jesus’ reply, “Let the dead bury the dead” is an indication that anyone who doesn’t have God in the center is already dead and that to have life, we need to make the choice to follow Him who is the Way, Truth and Life. This would also be the way that the Father likewise may be attracted to the relationship with Jesus through which, even after death, he would live forever. But the man seemed unwilling to put Christ first.

A third person told the Lord that he would follow him, but he first wanted to say goodbye to everyone. It’s certainly not evil to want to say farewell to friends and family — as if he would never have had a chance to do it in the future! — but what this man was doing was conditioning his response, putting following Christ behind human considerations, and failing to recognize the unbelievable privilege of the invitation he had just received. That’s why Jesus gave him, and us, a crucially important principle: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” He’s calling all of us to set our hand to the plow and to look at what we’re gaining rather than what we’re giving up, to look at him and follow him along the path of freedom, faith and felicity, rather than peering backward toward yesterday’s treasures. He’s calling all of us to use our freedom to make him the true priority of our life, to pay the price that following him requires, and to help those who are dead burying their dead, those for whom Christ is not the principle of their life, to behold this witness of total commitment and prioritization so that they might likewise follow Christ on that same narrow path that leads to life.

Compromise versus commitment

We’re living in an age in which many Christians compromise their faith in Christ, rather than make a full commitment. It’s an era in which we are enslaved to so many things that, even though many of us want to make God truly Lord of our life, we feel like we can’t. Some say they “must” work on Sunday to provide for their families rather than follow the Lord to the place where he gives us the treasure of his body and blood, the greatest good imaginable. They’re enslaved by mammon. Some say they “must” remain in a relationship — like cohabitation or a marriage outside the Church —  that is not ordered to the truth God has revealed, but this bond in the final analysis is spiritually a choice of a Barabbas they’re living with over Christ himself. Others say they have no choice but to maintain a grudge against someone who has really hurt them rather than let it go and freely join Christ on the path of mercy. In all these cases and others, we make a partial commitment to Christ, but not a full one, because we feel enslaved by the other commitments to which we give practical priority, treating them more important than God. And such a partial commitment leaves us torn and sad, just like the Rich Young Man who walked away from Christ rather than pay the price that would lead him, with Christ, to perfection, peace and paradise.

There’s another way. This last week, I had a beautiful five days in Costa Rica teaching the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s sisters) from throughout Latin America. They had asked me to come to teach them Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to help them understand a little better how to respond to the many challenges they face in their heroic ministry serving Christ in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor. Most of these sisters had followed Christ thousands of miles away from where they grew up, were speaking a foreign language, and working in extremely challenging apostolates with the abandoned elderly, the mentally disabled, mothers in difficult pregnancies or abusive relationships, runaway teens and more. They take their vow of poverty with the utmost seriousness. All they own is able to be put in a small metal washbucket, where the clean their second sari (habit), have a prayer book, rosary beads, and a bar of soap. But you’ll never meet happier people in your life! They are contagiously joyous because they’re treasure is the Lord who when we commit to him will never be outdone in generosity. Blessed Mother Teresa transmitted to them the “spirit” of the Missionaries of Charity as “loving trust, total surrender, and cheerfulness,” and because of their love and trust for the Lord they have totally given of themselves to him, cheerfully making him the center of their life. Their total commitment to Christ in little things has always brought me to a deeper commitment as a disciple and as a priest. Each night we’d have a holy hour after a long day of intense classes. The sisters would kneel basically straight on the tile floor for an hour. In the back of the chapel, they had a chair and a kneeler for the priest that I was using, but after the second night, I thought it was ridiculous that if they could love the Lord on their knees for an hour, that I would be using a wooden kneeler with a small pad. So I joined them on the floor. I also realized among them how soft I had become in another area. Because of past tennis injuries as well as not being as in good shape as I ought to be, I need a firm mattress for my back if I’m not going to wake up in pain in the morning. I’ve become used to it too much. There in Costa Rica, however, the thin mattress on the chaplain’s bed wasn’t firm enough. After I started to feel some pain in the back, I made the call that I needed to drag the mattress to the floor. I grumbled to myself a little bit about the inconvenience before I realized that the Missionaries of Charity often don’t have beds at all and if they do, they certainly don’t have Sterns and Foster mattresses for their backs. But none of those things stops them from giving of themselves wholly and entirely to God with joy. It was a great gift of the Lord for me to see this as I prepared to live today’s Gospel anew.

Jesus is calling all of us today to put our hands to the plow and not look back, to follow him not half-heartedly but with our whole mind, heart, soul and strength, not out of cold, bitter duty but out of trusting, self-surrending, cheerful love. The Year of Faith is another chance for us to make that leap of faith and follow Christ without reserve.

Resolutions to put our hand to the plow and not look back

I’d like to finish with some practical resolutions that will make this call Jesus gives us today concrete.

  • Let us make the resolution to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ in prayer without looking back at the television, radio, computer and other devices. This is a commitment to make prayer more important in our life than various diversions. If Catholics in our area spent the time praying that we devote — and I mean devote — to watching Red Sox games, following the Hernandez saga, watching the Bruins’ tragic sixth game collapse, and lamenting the Celtics’ restructuring this week, we and our whole Commonwealth would be so much better off. Let’s make this commitment!
  • Let us make the resolution to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ at the Mass without looking at the clock. Let’s follow him with all our mind and heart in the readings. Let’s pour ourselves into the prayers and the hymns. Let’s make the offering of ourselves to Him who gives all to us.
  • Let us make the resolution to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ in forgiving those who have hurt us without looking to see if they forgive us before or after..
  • Let us make the resolution to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ in caring for the poor without looking to see if anyone notices, to iving not only generously but sacrificially, not from surplus but from need.
  • Let us make the commitment to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ by living according to the Holy Spirit and putting to death in us the life of the flesh, without looking back to what our peers say or our past illicit pleasures.
  • Let us make the commitment to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ by taking advantage of opportunities to learn our faith better, without looking back to see who else is going to be attending or doing the same.
  • Let us make the resolution to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ to defend the truth without looking to back to see if it meets with other people’s approval.
  • Let us, in short, make the resolution to put our hands to the plow and follow Christ in uniting our whole life with Him without looking back to our old way of doing things.

Today Christ looks on us with love and calls us to follow him and joining our hands to his in plowing the fields for a harvest. We seek to live and be led by the Holy Spirit and it is here that the Holy Spirit has led us, so that we might behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and liberates us from sin and death. Rather than gratifying the desires of the flesh, we come near to be nourished by Jesus’ flesh and blood, which strengthen us to make a total commitment to him who here gives himself totally to us. As Jesus calls us anew to follow him now, let’s do so with free, committed, total love and cheerfulness. Doing so is the most important decision we’ll ever make and the path to solidify, secure and expand our freedom.