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January 12, 2017 - What Does It Mean to be Free?

Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings

This weekend, we observe a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., a champion of civil freedoms and martyr for that cause, and so this is a fitting time to think about what it means to be free. Today's scriptures help us reflect further on what it means to be free.

 Freedom may seem, at first, like an obvious thing, but the more I think about it, the less obvious it is.  For example, in our culture people often think of freedom as being able to do whatever they want, so long as they aren't impeding anyone else's freedom also to do whatever they want.  Yet it turns out that what we think are "free" decisions have unintended, unfreeing, consequences.  I think of some of my students, for example, who drink a lot and often.  When I raise a question about that drinking, they might say "Don't spoil my fun!  I am free to do what I want."  And yet, I have been a professor long enough to know people who have seen some of the consequences of their drinking: they become addicted, to the point that alcohol is not free or fun, but rather ruins a life (or several).

Today's first passage gives us another version of this kind of story (1 Samuel 8:4-7, 10-22a).  The people are begging Samuel, a prophet, to give them a king so that they  can "be like other nations."  The Israelites remind me a lot of me and others in our contemporary society, wanting things not because those things are necessarily good but because other people have them.  This, to us, is closely related to our idea of freedom: we should be able to do (and have) what the other guys are having.

The Israelites want a king because the other nations that have kings are also the most powerful, but Samuel tries to convince the Israelites not to ask for a king, because the king will end up taking the best of all their harvests.  Their sons and daughters will not be "free" to work in their own fields and houses, because they'll be doing all those tasks for the king.  There are definite downsides to asking for a king.  But the people freely ask for a king, freely persist in requesting a king, and God does answer their prayers.  This is where "be careful what you wish for" is an apt phrase; just as Samuel says, having a king is not the altogether great thing the people thought it would be. It does not give them power or wealth but leads to exile and destruction.  So, the Israelites' choice seems to have been: 1) choose less power, less wealth, but freedom from becoming another person's servant; 2) choose more power, more wealth, but less freedom.  They end up becoming slaves to their desires for money and power.  Ultimately God intervenes and chooses another way - Jesus' kingship - that looks nothing like what the people desired.

In today's gospel reading (Mark 2:1-12), we see Jesus bestowing freedom of another kind as he heals the paralytic.  But is the paralyzed man unfree because he is trapped in his body, or is he unfree because he is trapped by his sins?  We don't know, for Jesus heals both, and this is significant!  Even more significant is the fact that it is his friends' faith, not his own, that leads Jesus to heal him.  Perhaps the paralyzed man's sin was that he was trapped into thinking that he was so "bad" that God would never do something good for him.  Or perhaps he wanted to be "free" to try to do things on his own.  Thinking that we are too bad (or too good) for God also leads us to be unfree.

But God wants us to be free.  This does not mean freedom to do whatever we want, for as we see in today's scriptures, that kind of "freedom" often leads only to being trapped more.  True freedom is instead about allowing God to work in our lives (even when that seems unfree) because then we become our best selves.  Today, let us offer our lives to God, so that we can become God's free creatures, untrapped by all that is not God.

- Jana M. Bennett