The Freedom to Love
June 27, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21) Reading II (Galatians 5:1, 13-18)
Gospel (St. Luke 9:51-62)
In the second reading today from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, the reading begins by saying: It is for freedom that Christ set us free. That sounds sort of redundant, “Jesus set us free so that we could be free.” Well, that is not exactly what it means. It means that we have been freed from the slavery to sin in order to become who we were created to be. What that means is that as Christian people we have the freedom to love. Now that is not the way most Americans interpret the word “freedom”. Freedom, in America, is license; it means: “I can do anything that I want whenever I want and no one can tell me any different.” Most of us at least would acknowledge that there are some boundaries and limits that the law sets up, but for the most part it is basically a free-for-all. But Saint Paul makes very clear to say, Do not use your freedom as the pretext for sin. Do not use your freedom to give into the desires of the flesh.
So we recognize that on one level this freedom has to do with chastity, to be able to live (even in regard to sexual morality) according to the laws of God. But again it is not merely a following of external precepts. It is not merely a matter of saying, “Well, here’s what the sixth and ninth commandments say, so I have to fight against every desire that I have and struggle to do it,” but rather it is to say that if we truly love we will do exactly what is right. We will be following the precepts of God, not in a negative way, but rather in the most perfect and positive way because we will never do anything that will violate the person who is loved. What Saint Paul is saying is that Christ died for us so that we would have the freedom to truly love, which means the freedom to overcome selfishness.
To be selfish is the opposite of love, and selfishness is slavery. When we think of slavery, we think of some sort of external oppression. Most of us in America would say, “Isn’t it wonderful that we don’t have that anymore?” I would recommend to consider the fact that it has simply changed. While we do not take one class of people and force them into slavery anymore – thanks be to God! – I think most of us are enslaved to the senses, and it is the advertisers who are the ones doing the enslaving these days. We are all oppressed, I think, if we were truly honest, but the difference is that this is a freely chosen slavery. It is, tragically, something that most people want, and the devil is more than happy to give you exactly what you want, as he laughs all the way into eternity dragging all the souls with him.
When we consider what Saint Paul is saying – Do not use this freedom to give free reign to the flesh – it is not just with regard to chastity that he is speaking, but if we put it into our own context of today, look at all the pleasures that we give into, all the sensual things that we give into. Ask a teenage kid, for instance, “Give up the TV. Give up your radio. Give up your video games,” and just watch what happens. But it is not just about teenage kids. I would challenge every adult here the same way. Think about giving up the TV and look at what kind of interior reaction you have. Think about all the various little pleasures that you have provided for yourself, things that are not by themselves necessarily illicit, but things that become immoderate, things that we become attached to. If we are attached to these things, then they become more important to us than the Lord Himself. We would, of course, immediately reject that and suggest, “No, that is not true. These things are not more important to me than the Lord.” Then give them up.
I would highly recommend that you go to prayer, sit down in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and just say to Jesus, “Take anything that You want.” Now it is easy to say that generically, so get a little more specific; make a list of all the things that you do selfishly every day and go before the Lord and say, “Lord, if you want to take the TV away, that’s okay. If You want to take away my headphones, that’s okay. If You want to take away the newspaper, that’s fine. If You want to take these people out of my life, that’s okay.” Just start making a list and you will find out real quickly just how important these things are to you. Like any addict, we would like to be able to say, “Oh, I can give it up anytime!” Do it. Just watch what happens in your mind and in your heart when it comes time to actually act upon the idea of giving it up.
What we need to realize is that there are some of these things that stand between us and the Lord, and if we are not willing to give them up what that means is that they mean more to us than the Lord Himself! So even though we would object and say, “No, they don’t mean more to me than God,” the reality is that, yes, they do. We are willing to give up Jesus, at least to some degree, in order to have our material junk, in order to have our sense pleasure. Therefore, we are not willing to give up what is sensual in order to have what is spiritual. We are willing to be selfish rather than to love is what that comes down to. Even though Saint Paul says very clearly, Do not use this freedom for the flesh, we are – and we are enslaved to it. I think if we were honest we would all have to admit it. No matter what the area happens to be, if we cannot let it go, then we are enslaved.
Again, the problem for us is that this is not a forced slavery but a freely chosen one. It is a slavery to sin; it is a slavery to selfishness. If you really stop and think about it, this is exactly the life of Satan. We have in Jesus Christ a freedom to love, and we ask ourselves, “What is love?” Love is self-sacrificing, love is giving, love is seeking the good of the other, love is dying to self in order to bring greater life to another, and so to love is to serve. Now in our normal way of thinking about things, if someone has to serve, isn’t that the one who is the slave? The answer in this case is “no” because it is a freely chosen service of love, not a forced service of slavery. In fact, what we could say is simply that the freedom we have is the freedom to become the persons God created us to be. He created us to love, which means He created us to serve. Jesus came into this world and said, I have come not to be served but to serve, and to give My life as a ransom for the many. It was Mr. Lucifer who said, “I will not serve.” So, again, we can look and say, “Which way are we choosing?” If we are being selfish, we are saying, “I want for me and I will not serve.” Or, as many of us will do, we will say, “Well, I will give as long as I’m going to get it back. I will give as long as there is something in it for me.” It is all a very calculated risk: “If I do this for somebody else then they’ll like me; they’ll think that I’m a really nice person; they’ll be impressed.” It does not matter in that case what you have done, it was selfish. It was done, not out of charity, but out of selfishness. Once again, the slavery: We are not serving the other but we are serving ourselves. True love is to serve, to give without expecting anything in return, and it is true freedom. That is the opposite of the American way of thinking, but the average American today is enslaved to the senses, enslaved to the self. Jesus died for us so we could be freed from that.
Now because this slavery is so profound and so deep within us, it is not going to be an easy thing to overcome. We are not going to be able to walk out of here this morning and say, “Well, since I recognize that I am indeed enslaved to some of these things and ultimately to my own self, from this day forward I am not going to do that anymore.” That is not going to happen. It would be wonderful if it did, but that is not reality. It is going to take a great effort on our part. It requires prayer. In other words, it requires spending time on the spiritual level, it requires uniting oneself with Jesus Christ and walking in His path, it requires doing exactly what Our Lord has told us in the Gospel; that is to say, “I put my hand to the plow and I’m not going to look back.” But that is exactly what we keep doing. We say that we want to follow Jesus, but we want to live in the world. If we are following the spiritual path, we need to cut ourselves off from the rest of it; but that is something that is very hard because it requires dying to self. That is where we are enslaved. Are we not just like the man in the Gospel who said, “I will follow You, but…”? The Lord looks at us and says, “You have to make a choice.”
You have already vowed in Baptism that you are going to reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises and that you are going to live your life for God. Most of us live our lives for ourselves and not for God. Let’s just be bluntly honest with ourselves and quit playing our little game of dancing around it and saying, “Oh, no, because I go to Mass and I believe in Jesus, I’m living my life for the Lord.” Would that such would be the case, but for most of us it is probably not. For many of us, we even go to Mass (again, if we are going to be perfectly honest) to make our consciences feel better. It is about the self, and it is not about the Lord.
Whom will we serve? Saint Paul makes very clear in his Letter to the Romans that we will have to serve someone, all of us do. Jesus made the same point, He said, Anyone who sins is a slave to sin. Saint Paul says that we all have to serve someone. We have to make the choice. Are we going to serve the Lord? Or are we going to serve Satan? Or we could say, “Well, I want to serve myself,” then we are doing it the devil’s way. It is not an in-between; it is one or the other. Are you going to serve the Lord? Or are you going to serve Satan? The devil, in his lie, says, “I will not serve.” By refusing to serve, what we are doing is serving the devil. The choice is ours. Are we going to live according to our baptismal vows, put our hand to the plow and quit looking back? Or are we going to immerse ourselves into the way of the world and say, “I don’t want the plow. I don’t want to follow Jesus.” The way of Christ is very clear: it is to take up our cross, it is to die to self, and it is to serve. In that we will become the persons God created us to be and we will find true joy for our souls. We will find true freedom because it is no longer license but it is the freedom to become the persons we were created to be – it is the freedom to love. It is the freedom for which each and every one of us truly longs, but the devil in his subtlety has twisted the truth so that we think freedom is doing whatever we want to do, that freedom is being served instead of serving. That is a lie. The choice is ours, and it has been made clear. Jesus Christ died for us to set us free. We have been set free solely for the sake of freedom – to be free to love.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.