Jesus Christ is the Key to Understanding the Meaning of Human Freedom.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
27 September 2014
Jesus is for us a model of holiness (CCC, 459). In and through and with Christ, we begin to understand the real meaning of authentic human freedom, as well as how it is properly exercised. Through faith in Christ and belief in the teaching of his Church, true freedom is unveiled as we begin to see and live by the light of God.
This Sunday’s first reading is about the crucial importance of not only repentance but of afterward living in justice and righteousness (Ez 18:25-28). The man who “turns from wickedness,” says the LORD, to do “what is right and just” shall “preserve his life.” In changing from his sinful ways and embracing the way of God, the formerly lost man passes from death to spiritual life. This man, says the LORD, “shall surely live, he shall not die.”
In today’s gospel proclamation, our Lord Jesus Christ speaks to us also about change (Mt 21:28-32), using a parable about two sons and their openness—or lack of it—to their father’s will. It begins with the father asking the first son to go into the vineyard, presumably to work. Although the first son initially rejects his father’s request, he later changes his mind, and, in doing so, accomplishes his father’s will. However resistant he may have been initially, he later “changed” direction. Near the conclusion of the gospel selection, Jesus associates this positive change with “entering the kingdom of God.”
The second son is also asked to go into the vineyard, and answers his father with what seems a resolute and unhesitating, “Yes sir.” However, he does not go. He either lied to his father, having no intention to go in the first place, or later changed his mind. In any case, he failed to accomplish his father’s will. Jesus here makes the point that words devoid of action are meaningless.
Notice how before Jesus tells this parable, he asks the “chief priest and elders of the people” for their opinion. Notice also how quickly and easily these men responded when Jesus asked which of the two sons did their father’s will: “The first,” they said unhesitatingly. Jesus then reminds these men that they did not later change their minds in favor of John the Baptist’s “way of righteousness.” They are, therefore, not like the first son, but rather more like the second. The point is, they are quick to grasp the second son’s error but not their own.
How difficult it can be to change! Real, meaningful and lasting change is impossible apart from Jesus Christ because he is the light of humanity (cf. Jn 1:4).
Human Freedom Misunderstood
But back to the Scripture we heard today. In both the first reading and the gospel selection there is an emphasis on the proper use of human free will, which is the power to freely choose this or that, good or evil, and which is something misunderstood and abused in our own day. Often, people equate free will with a freedom without limits, as if they can do what they want without consequence. In this respect, there is a type of widespread insanity pervading culture, one which admits to certain limits on freedom but blatantly denies others with deplorable regularity, attaching to severe and unspeakable abuses of free will the word “rights,” as if particular free choices, regardless of their grave nature, are a “right” that people automatically possess.
For instance, nearly every person will unhesitatingly agree that no one has a right to arbitrarily kill someone else at will, simply because they choose to do so, because it seems to be the convenient thing to do. Even if one person should somehow deem it necessary to kill another, we say they must not. We call that murder. Murder is universally recognized as sinful, evil, a criminal act of the worst magnitude. We hunt down and incarcerate people for committing such a heinous crime because they are a danger to society. Murder is not simply crossing the boundary line of human freedom but obliterating it. Murder is, then, a limit on freedom that everyone recognizes—a line that must never be crossed.
Nevertheless, about half the U.S. populace adamantly insists that killing people is indeed acceptable, a human “right” to be protected by civil law, so long as those killed are very young, helpless and innocent children. They disguise this blinded view on the limits of human freedom with euphemistic language such as “the right to choose.”
As another example, nearly everyone agrees they should refrain from physically harming their own body. Emotional health, also, is prized, and significant financial resources are allocated in order to elevate and/or maintain it. It would be both immoral and foolish to intentionally injure ourselves physically, emotionally or psychologically. Although we are free to do so, it would be crossing the limits of human freedom.
But when it comes to rendering the human body infertile, intentionally seeking to alter it in a negative way that prevents, injures or destroys fertility, it is seen as a “right way” of exercising human freedom. Why is thwarting the potential for procreation viewed as an acceptable use of freedom, while, at the same time, injuring the human body physically or emotionally in other ways is not? Might the pleasures of sexual intercourse have more than a little to do with it?
I am sure you get the point of these comparisons: Some limits on human freedom are readily acknowledged and accepted, while other abuses that gravely exceed those same limits are not. Is this because, like the second son, some are lying to themselves and to God? Is this situation because of lack of conviction? Are others overcome by a heedless disregard for the truth? Or is it, on the other hand, a failure to love the truth? And what moves us to a profound, ardent and burning love for the truth? Certainly not secular culture.
Speaking of secular culture, many people are simply swept along by its currents and the relativism that pervades it, and therefore do not consider how dangerous and destructive some of these abuses of human freedom can be.
This leads us to ask a number of other questions. First of all, what has happened? How has the proper exercise of human free will and its understanding become so muddled? How did we get to the point that the powerful insist they have a “right” to extinguish the weak? How is it that a type of societal self-annihilation in which deadly war is waged against humanity itself is protected by civil law? And how could we ever ascribe to self-inflicted infertility as virtuous? Further, how can anyone of faith in Jesus Christ adhere to the strange notion that thwarting procreation somehow falls within the plan of God? Did not the Creator himself say, “Be fruitful and multiply”? (Genesis 1:28).
How did we get to this point? Although human nature has been wounded by original sin since the dawn of time and we have been making lousy choices for millennia, there are lots of proposed theories about today’s dilemma regarding the lack of understanding—or rejection—of an authentic human freedom, which include relativism, religious indifference, hedonism, pragmatism, and so on.
Jesus Christ Unveils the True Meaning of Human Freedom
But I do not want to talk further about these various elements of culture that are injuring us physically and spiritually, instead, I want to point to the solution: Jesus Christ.
In today’s gospel, the parable Jesus tells very obviously points out the crucial need for positive change. Framed around the contrasting manner in which two sons use their freedom, it sends a clear message regarding the importance of free and loving obedience to the Father, our God and Creator. The people listening to Jesus at that time would have immediately made the connection between the father in the parable and God, especially given the language Jesus used about how doing the “father’s will” is associated with the “kingdom of God.”
Notice also that Jesus tells the chief priest and the elders that “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God.” Why are these despised elements of Jewish society entering the Kingdom? Because they listened, believed, and changed. They died to their old self and embraced the new, and, in doing so, exercised their freedom properly, within authentic limits that are ordered toward a truly good goal.
To understand human freedom and live properly is, in the first place, to give ourselves over to God. The fundamental purpose of our freedom is to love and serve God. This entails dying to self. The person who insists on manufacturing their own version of the truth and living by an individualistic, subjective freedom without limits, desires to equate themselves with God, which is born of the prideful temptation to become a god without God.
Above I wrote that Jesus Christ is the solution to the question of human freedom. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us, Jesus is for us a model of holiness (see CCC, 459). He teaches us not only how to live but what it means to live, including the goal of the human person and how to attain the fullness of human life.
In our second reading (Phil 2:1-11), St. Paul points this out when he tells us that we should have “the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, . . . he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
There is an inseparable connection between a willingness and openness to the will of God and an understanding of the full meaning of human freedom, as well as its proper exercise. It is impossible to have one without the other. And, as Jesus was raised from the dead, he teaches us that dying to self in free and loving obedience to the Father is not at all a bad thing, but rather it is an entry point into a new, resurrected life and the kingdom of God.
Through faith in Jesus Christ we are saved. In submitting to God and believing the teaching of the Church he willed to exist, we begin to see by the light of reality because we see by God’s divine light. It is in and through and with Christ that our vision clears and the real meaning of human freedom is unveiled. To love Jesus is to begin to see things as they really are! There is no other worthwhile and truly fulfilling way to live.
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Photo credit: Daryan Shamkhali
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.