The True Meaning of Freedom
Today’s Gospel is a familiar one. “The truth will set you free’ “is a quote that is used repeatedly. Yet, if you ask 3 people what it means, you might well get three different answers. What is more, those three people might not even know where the quote originated or what it was pointing out.
In the movie “Liar, Liar,” Jim Carrey’s character is a lawyer that is a compulsive liar. He many times wins cases with dishonesty. But, after being cursed with only being able to tell the truth, he eventually learns that truth is a valuable tool. He wins a case by getting his dishonest client to tell the truth, which saves the day, and, in the courtroom, he shouts “The truth will set you free.”
Lying, of course, is an example of the sin Jesus was talking about when he declared that we are all slaves to wrongdoing. In remedy, he offers to set us free.
But what does ‘free’ mean? Its importance and meaning depend on each individual. For instance, after many years, a prisoner is set free. He runs around saying, I’m FREE! I’m FREE! A boy walks up to him and says, so what? I’m 4.
The word ‘freedom’ evokes a reaction in our minds and emotions, but we have very different pictures in our heads when we think of it. This is no surprise. The dictionary describes ‘free’ as an adjective with the following meanings: 1) not under the control or in the power of another; 2) able to act or be done as one wishes. 3) not or no longer confined or imprisoned, 4) not subject to or constrained by engagements or obligations 5) not subject to or affected by a specified thing, typically an undesirable one. These closely related definitions all share similar ideas with slight (but important) differences. These are examples of the craziness of English that we educators have to teach.
However, ‘Free’ is also listed as an adverb in the instance of sailing, as “To loosen the lines that control the sails of a boat.” This was the definition that pulled at me. This is the definition of ‘free’ that I will forever think of when I think of Martin Luther.
You see, if the sails on a boat are pulled in tight, they don’t catch as much wind. In some cases, this is wanted. In others, it makes the boat less efficient, less able to take advantage of the air currents and could even put the boat in danger of capsizing. Think about it for a second: the tightened lines allow less action and resiliency for the sails. When you think about it, we can draw a parallel wherein the Medieval Church tightened spiritual and economic lines of the people. It kept the poor in uneducated poverty, allowing them no opportunity to expand, to develop, or to fill themselves with the breath of God.
When Jesus’ spoke these words, the elders in the synagogue were keeping a tight rein on the Jewish population. When they told Jesus that they had never been ‘slaves to anyone’ they were not realizing they were slaves of rules and regulations that controlled life down to the tiniest detail. How should one dress? What could one eat? How should one act in this situation or that? There were myriad rules to follow daily. People of faith were prisoners of a mountain of do’s and don’ts. Insidiously, trying to keep that mountain intact led to sin.
Do not covet? There was coveting of other’s property and wealth as possessions and riches denoted a blessed favor from God. Do not kill? There was a tradition of judgement that wrought death on others, such as stoning women believed to be unfaithful. And despite God’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, there was no love for others, such as the Samaritans. Indeed, loving your neighbor was only for your Jewish neighbor, and giving hospitality to those deemed ‘unworthy’ would get you castigated or humiliated, perhaps even cut off from society. Do not worship another god? Animal sacrifices showed the worship of money was firmly entrenched. There was price gouging right in the Temple courtyard, and the people had no choice but to pay the exorbitant prices. In such ways, the life-instructions of Judaism became warped and drawn into tight lines that literally imprisoned the Jewish people in false laws.
Jesus, however, brought what they needed. Living among people, many of whom fished, he understood that those lines, those lies, had to be loosened in order for the people to have the freedom to catch the wind of God, to fill their internal sails with the life-giving Truth about living the way God wants us all to live.
Similarly, Martin Luther saw how the church of his day had shrunk and warped its spiritual practices to enrich itself and secure its own power. The lies abounded. Your works would give you grace, your tithing, the giving of money from yourself, family and friends could shorten your loved one’s time in the purgatory created by the church. Working on behalf of the Church could save your soul.Horrid poverty, ignorance, disease, hunger, and wretched living conditions were the lines controlling the sails of that spiritual boat and they were tucked in tight, holding the people prisoners.
Martin Luther knew that Jesus had brought freedom, that he had paid for our Grace with his life. Thus was the Reformation born, aimed at returning the people to the truths that Jesus preached so they could become sails that filled with the wind of the Holy Spirit.
Like the wind that never stops its movement around the planet, the Reformation continues to free us, to free our thinking, and to keep our sails at their most useful. Far from a one-and-done accomplishment, change still ripples through our church. And we are grateful for it, as it keeps our Church in touch with the people it serves. For example, it was 50 years ago, in November and December, when women were first ordained. 40 years ago, women of color were able to seek and receive ordination, and 10 years in the past LGBTQIA+ individuals started being able to serve freely. Many more results of the continuing Reformation shape our Faith so that we can better serve. Freeing our sails, we gather in more of God’s goodness and in so doing, we propel the Church ever forward. And with God’s grace, given us freely through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we will continue to do so.