EXERCISING OUR FREEDOM FREELY
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [GEN 2:4-9, 15-17; PS 104:1-2, 27-30; MARK 7:14-23 ]
One of the greatest gifts given to humanity by God is freedom. This is what the first reading tells us through the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. “Yahweh God took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it. Then Yahweh God gave the man this command, ‘You are free to eat of all the trees in the garden. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat; for the day you eat of that, you are doomed to die.'” In giving us our freedom, we participate in the freedom of God and in His authority to rule over creation. Man as the highest of His creation, made in His image and likeness is bestowed with the power to rule. However, the authority to rule presupposes that we exercise our freedom freely. Many people in the world want to have authority, but they do so for the power to control others and use them for their interests. However, we cannot exercise authority over others unless we are in control of ourselves.
This is why we need to clarify the meaning of freedom. What is freedom? Freedom is firstly the faculty to choose. This is the basic meaning of freedom. To choose presupposes we have intellect and will, knowledge and the desire. Nevertheless, this would be a narrow understanding of freedom. This is precisely what the world claims over those who have religions. According to them, those who are believers of religions have to subscribe to the rules and doctrines of their faith. However, for freethinkers and secularists, they are completely free to decide what they like to do. Using their own limited knowledge and understanding, they choose what they think is good for them. That being the case, there is no real freedom because the true meaning of freedom is the ability to determine for ourselves in such a way that we make decisions for our ultimate good and happiness, both for ourselves and for others. When we lack knowledge, our decision would be flawed because the freedom is not exercised freely. This is the fundamental flow of relativism. This ideology deprives anyone from making real choices in life, knowingly and freely.
Worse still are those who advocate freedom as the license to do anything they want, even at the expense of justice, love and truth. Does freedom allow us to destroy people’s character and reputation? Does freedom allow us to kill anyone we do not like? Does freedom mean we can cheat and do others harm? In fact, if we are using our freedom to do evil, that is, acting contrary to the law of justice, love and truth, that is slavery. When we are addicted to pornography, lust, smoking and alcoholism, we are slaves because we cannot say “no’ to them. When we are controlled by greed, envy, gluttony or anger, we are not free. Freedom therefore means that we can always choose what is truly good for us and for others.
Yet, we all know that in reality, we are not free because we lack the power to act justly. We do not exercise our freedom rightly in truth and in love. Jesus said to the Jews, “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’? Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn 8:31-34) Like the Jews, we know we are not free because of our sins. The fact that we sin, means that we are not free. Even St Paul after his conversion experienced this struggle within himself, between doing good and evil. He wrote, “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Rom 7:14-17)
What is the reason for our incapacity to do the right thing? This is what the doctrine of Original Sin seeks to explain. We must go back to the beginning. By virtue of the fact that we belong to humanity, which we trace to the first man (Adam), we share in his fallen nature of not exercising the freedom to choose rightly. He was disobedient because he did not believe or trust in God. He chose to trust in himself. It was the sin of pride that led to disobedience when Adam chose to rely on himself rather than on God. This is what the story of the fall seeks to illustrate. We who share in his human nature too suffer the weakness of ignorance, pride and disobedience as well.
Therefore, if we sin, it is because, as St Paul diagnosed, sin dwells in us. This truth is reiterated in today’s gospel when Jesus declared, “It is what comes out of someone that makes that person unclean. For it is from within, from the heart, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a person unclean.” The Prophet Jeremiah remarked, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9) So our incapacity to choose what is right always, is because our hearts are contaminated. Most of the time we are ignorant, and even if we know what should be done, we lack the will to do the right thing. This is what the sin of concupiscence is all about, the lack of power over our will. This is what the Lord warns us when He too struggled against evil in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mk 14:38)
Secondly, we sin also because of the bad examples we inherit from others, especially those who brought us up. This is the second aspect of Original Sin, the sin of imitation. We are individuals inserted into a community. Whether we like it or not, the “culture” of the community affects the way we live. Our values, our desires and our interests are very much determined by the community we live in. The community can influence us for good or for evil. Today, in a secular culture, where values such as consumerism, materialism, hedonism, promiscuity, individualism and relativism are promoted, we cannot but be sucked into the system as well. So our choices in life are conditioned not just by the DNA we inherit from our parents but also from the DNA of the community.
Thirdly, we sin because of selfishness and fear of death. We want to protect ourselves and so we would destroy others and make use of them for our own advantage because we are afraid to suffer, be deprived or be rejected by people. We want to be free from all physical sufferings and emotional pain that come from loneliness and low self-esteem. We try hard to impress people and to look good. Unfortunately, we often put up a show and we use devious means to present ourselves to the world that we are successful and capable. Nevertheless, our unscrupulous means are just waiting to be exposed. Otherwise, if we are the ones who have been cheated and hurt, then there is the deep desire to take revenge and recover our losses. We want to attack our enemies and destroy them as well.
How, then, can we overcome this inability to choose rightly? On our own strength, we cannot. We depend on the victory given to us in our Lord Jesus Christ. St Paul exclaimed, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:25f) If we want to exercise our freedom in truth and in love, in full understanding and control of our will, we can only do it with Jesus and with His power given to us in the Holy Spirit. “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” (Gal 5:16, 25) This Spirit has been given to us at baptism. Through the sacrament of baptism, we have been inserted into Christ and the body of Christ, the Church, the community of grace. What is required of us to live in grace and in perfect freedom is to continue to allow the Spirit of God to rule our lives.
So let us welcome the gift of the Spirit and His grace through the reception of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of reconciliation, the Word of God and most of all, in prayer, both individual and community prayer. Unless we avail ourselves of the grace of God that comes to us through the means provided by the Church, we will not be able to resist the temptations of the Evil One. Only the Word of God can enlighten us in the truth and His love can motivate us to do good and not evil.
We must be careful that we do not just live our faith externally like the Jews in today’s gospel when the Lord warned them, “Can’t you see that nothing that goes into someone from outside can make that person unclean, because it goes not into the heart but into the stomach and passes into the sewer?” However, if it is not food but words, pictures and values, we must be careful because what we consume will be what we produce. “Nothing that goes into someone from outside can make that person unclean; it is the things that come out of someone that make that person unclean.” Indeed, in another place, the Lord warns us, “Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.” (Lk 8:18)
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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