Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Stupid Pharisees

The Gospel reading for today (Wed after V Sunday in Lent: Dn 3:14-20, 91-92, 95, Daniel 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56, Jn 8:31-42) is among my favorite passages. Jesus' discourses have caused many to come to believe in Him (Jn 8:30). He adds to those who have started coming to faith, "If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples,and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free," (Jn 8:31). But at these last words, his hearers choke.

"WHAT?!" they demand, "We're not SLAVES! We're sons of Abraham! How can you call us slaves?" (Well, that's my paraphrasing. It actually says, They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How can you say, 'You will become free'?" Jn 8:32).

This snippet of their exchange needs years of delving. Let's try something brief though. The descendants of Abraham, just three generations after Abraham, went to Egypt for help during a famine, and got ensnared in the Egyptians' social structure and were pushed into a slave class. They escaped under Moses' leadership after 400 or so years of oppression. After settling in back home, they repeatedly came under the domination of neighboring civilizations, most notably the Philistines. They were only able to escape that domination by taking for themselves a king, against God's expressed preference on the grounds that their kings would come to dominate them as well. That's what happened, in fact - one king more domineering and harsh than the last. It culminated in the sacking of the northern half of Israel by Assyria, and the southern by Babylon, so that half the Israelites were hauled off into captivity in those kingdoms, and the remainder lived as subjects of them in their own homes. When Persia conquered Babylon, the Israelites there were "freed" to go home and live as obedient vassals of Persia. Then Alexander the Great came through and conquered the place, and the Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties of Greek rulers that came after him began to treat the Jews more and more brutally. The Jews were finally able to get the Greeks off their backs by enlisting the Romans to come in and help. Only, the Romans never left, and it is under their oppression that the Jews labored in the time of our Lord.

It is purely self-righteous stupidity, defensive unto blindness, that lead Jesus' listeners to cry, "We have never been enslaved to anyone." It would have been better if they had asked, "When have we NOT been enslaved to someone?!"

Interestingly, Jesus brushes all this political oppression aside and makes it clear that He means a much more universal sort of slavery: spiritual slavery caused by sin: "everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin," (Jn 8:34). That's a funny thing for us to hear. In fact, it probably bounces off most people's ears as one of those things that Jesus said that doesn't really make sense (anymore?). That's because we have a warped understanding of freedom that essentially says, "Freedom is being permitted to do whatever you want." So a law against using marijuana makes us less free, most Americans would agree, and it is only a question of which freedoms are good or bad.

The traditional Christian understanding of freedom is much more comprehensible to a recovering cocaine addict than to the typical American. I'm not being smart here, but very serious. I, who have never used a narcotic, am free of their power. I can choose to use a drug, or can abstain. It's all the same to me. Not so with someone in the throes of a deadly addiction, though. A chronic drunk cannot choose to abstain from alcohol - at least not for long. He is a slave to booze in a way that most people are not. After we sin, we either repent of the sin, or else rationalize it, make excuses for it, and thereby begin to incorporate it into the structure of our life. Slowly but surely we become dependent on it and cannot imagine life without it, and the thought of breaking with it becomes repugnant. Whether it is telling lies, looking down on people, using narcotics, fornicating - whatever - we begin to defend it as if it were part of ourself. It becomes first part of our lifestyle, then part of ourselves. This addictive quality of sin is what our Lord is getting at.

Jesus makes an offer, though. He says that slaves don't really have a place in the household, and will be tossed out eventually. But a son has a place, and if a son of the household frees the slave, they can have a shot at freedom, and even getting to be part of the family. This reference might be to household slaves, especially nannies, tutors, physicians, who might be freed and adopted by the family. He is hinting that the Jews could lose their place in God's household if they don't take up his offer of freedom from sin - just being a physical child of Abraham isn't enough (Jn 8:39-40).

Now the listeners, who were friendly at first to his message, but when it was clarified for them became hostile, set up a precedent followed by heretics ever since. Heretics are those in the Church who rebel against her teachings. When Jesus questions the usefulness of their bloodline, the unhappy hearers growled, "We were not born of fornication. We have one Father, God," (Jn 8:41). From that time onward, heretics have always taken shots at Mary. By defending the social legitimacy of their birth, which had not been questioned, they are calling Mary a fornicator, and Jesus her bastard. Them's fightin' words.

As the story continues, after the conclusion of the passage read in church today, Jesus basically says, "If you were from God, you'd recognize me..." and then, "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies," (Jn 8:44).

So it is to this day. Heretics the world over, throughout history, in their self-righteous pride, have opposed their teacher, the Body of Christ on earth, and have as a rule found a bone to pick with His Mother, as well. Consequently they stay bound in innumerable sins - first and foremost, pride. They've got entirely the wrong attitude. If we can humble ourselves to the teachings of Christ, He will set us free from all manner of sins, addictions, and oppressors.

No comments: