by Father Walter Ray Williams
The Seventh Sunday of the Year, B
As most of you are well aware, I find bumper stickers fascinating. They say so much, sometimes a good bit more, I believe, than their displayers realize. Just the other day I was out in the car on my way to make a Communion call, and I spotted a car in front of me with a plethora of bumper stickers on it, a veritable Decalogue of do’s and don’ts pasted on the rear of the vehicle, a number with which I might be in some sympathy: “Kill your television”; “Free Tibet”; “Say no to war”; and so forth. But enshrined in the middle, in large, glittering letters – as if the rubric overshadowing all – was the simple word “CHOICE.” And we all know what that means. Well then, okay, “choice”: and what if someone responds, “Then I choose to watch TV day in and day out to the neglect of my duties and commitments and at the expense of really living”; or, “I choose not to be concerned at all with the freedom of others, and claim the right to pursue, as much as I can, my own ends by means even of violence.” You know… “choice.”
Obviously, there are ideas and proposed ways of living and behaving in this world that are poisonous; when followed and adhered to, the effects and consequences of those ideas and behaviors illustrate that such errors and falsehoods are a kind of leprosy of the soul, of the human heart. They can infect the mind with that most serious disease that denies reality, conscience and the natural law that resides in us by our very nature.
A good example of this is (you guessed it) another bumper sticker, this one, again, giving the highway reader yet another command to obey; it reads, “Question Authority,” an imperative which one could easily answer and rebuke with the simple response of “Why?” At the bottom of all these clichéd urgings on the back of cars is, at its root, a deep and abiding confusion that few seem to really notice. What sense does it make to command things of people, to demand of others what one thinks is right, and then take personal refuge in “choice”? By what authority does someone demand of the rest of us that we all must question authority?
Behind all this confusion is the greatest lie and deceit ever uttered, and that is that true freedom is freedom merely from something, namely, authority. Authority, in and of itself – and not just abusive or illegitimate authority – but authority itself is the enemy of freedom. But is it really a restriction of “freedom” for a father and mother to insist that junior is not allowed to drink the Liquid Plumber stored under the sink or that he cannot play ball in the middle of a busy street? Is it a restriction of freedom to insist that all users of vehicles must drive on the right side of the highway? Do not, rather, such “restrictions” aid and abet freedom?
This idea that freedom is defined by mere choice is a poisonous idea. For, again, another question: what freedom results from “freely” choosing to imbibe illegal drugs which often lead to an enslaving and life-debilitating addiction? People want, in a contradictory fashion, to demand what they like or desire – all those bumper stickers – and yet reserve for themselves the so-called right of choice. They demand, with vaunted personal authority, that we all join in on this questioning of all authority. And freedom is reduced to a pale and sickly arbitrariness.
On the contrary, real liberty is better defined by its goal, not merely by choice. That is, genuine freedom is grounded in the good and the true: every exercise of the human will that chooses what is right, true, good and noble leads that person into ever deeper and exalted freedom. But exactly here authority is needed to guide the choosing.
Today’s Gospel story illustrates this beautifully, this necessity of authority and the benevolence of the authority of God. Our Lord speaks of His authority to forgive sins (and authority is required to delineate what sin is) and proves that authority by healing the paralytic. “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” And that man rose into freedom, both from his disease, and far more importantly, from sin, the disease of the soul. But what freedom this, if this man, now bodily healthy, should exercise his “freedom” to sin again? Ultimately, that would lead him to a paralysis of the heart and soul far darker and enslaving than any physical disability. For Christ had set him free to now follow and obey the authority that had liberated him. Or, as Christ said to the woman caught in adultery, “Go, and sin no more”; or, to another man whom He had healed: “Go, and sin no more, lest something worse happen to you.”
St. Paul, giving voice to the glory of the Gospel, proclaimed that it was “for freedom that Christ has set us free.” But the Apostle also warned: “Those who sow to the flesh” – that is, those who just do what they want with disregard of all authority, following urges, deifying “choice” – “will reap a harvest of death. But those who sow to the spirit” – that is, those who submit themselves to the rightful, liberating authority of God – “will reap a harvest of everlasting life.”
In summary: the authority of God, revealed and lived in His Church, is not enslaving, but rather liberating. It keeps us driving on the right side of the road of life, prevents us from imbibing that which would enslave and ultimately destroy us. “Rise up,” Christ is saying to us, “rise up above all false promises of freedom and follow me.” And our Lord gave us the ultimate promise of the satisfaction of all our desires for real freedom, when He proclaimed that those who follow Him, obey His authority, that they would know the truth, and the truth would – always will – set them free.