“For freedom Christ set us free.” These readings seem to me to be a beautiful reflection for this time of year, when we are getting ready for our Independence Day celebrations next week. When our nation’s founders set up this fledgling republic 234 years ago, freedom was certainly one of their primary concerns. Freedom of religion was particularly important, as was freedom of expression, freedom of association, and many others. We are the beneficiaries of their hard work. To use a current catch phrase, freedom isn’t free, it is purchased at a price, and at this time of year we remember those who purchased it for us.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul is reflecting on the freedom that the early Christians had. This freedom was a freedom from the constraints of the Jewish law that encouraged people to replace true devotion and zeal with mere surface-level observance of their religion’s many – and I do mean many! – laws. Those early Christians were beneficiaries of the hard work of others, also. Particularly, Paul reminds them, their freedom was purchased at the incredible price of the blood of Jesus Christ the Lord who died that we might have life. Their freedom wasn’t free either, and they, and of course we, are beneficiaries of the sacrifice of Christ.
For the Galatians, as well as for all of us, freedom had to be defined a little more exactly, and that was St. Paul’s purpose in today’s second reading. Because freedom isn’t free, it can’t be taken lightly or casually, and so he makes it clear what the freedom truly is. The Galatians had the mistaken notion that freedom meant the same thing as license, which isn’t the case at all. Freedom didn’t mean license to act against the law and to live lives of immorality and corruption. That would be replacing one form of slavery with another, really, since immorality has its own chains. The freedom Christ won for us is a freedom to live joyful lives of dedication and devotion and discipleship, all caught up in the very life of God. Real freedom looses us from the bonds of the world and sets us free to bind ourselves to God, who created us for himself and desires that we would be free from sin and death. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.
This distinction between true freedom and license for immorality is one that we must take seriously especially in our own day, even as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s own independence. Because in our own day, we too have confused the freedom we have inherited from our founders with a license to do whatever the heck we want. You know this is true. People say what they want and do what they want and feel entitled to say and do it. People abandon the practice of their faith when it suits them – like when they have a soccer game or a baseball tournament, or want to take a trip or don’t feel like getting out of bed to go to Mass. And that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is not the gift we have been given. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we have the right to express ourselves in a way that slanders or ridicules others. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion, and it doesn’t mean that we have to practice our faith in secret and not let people know that Jesus Christ is Lord. Being free doesn’t mean we have license to do whatever we want; being free means we are free to better ourselves, our families, our churches and our communities. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.
This freedom to be who we have been created to be is a matter of some urgency for Elisha in today’s first reading and the disciples that Jesus met in today’s Gospel. All of them received the message that when God calls, the time to answer is now. But all of them found that there were things going on inside them that kept them from answering the call that kept them from being free to follow God in the way they were created to do that. And the rebukes they all received seem a bit harsh to our ears. After all, they had good excuses, didn’t they? Who would deny a person the right to say goodbye to their families or bury their dead? But there are a couple of subtle distinctions that we have to get here. First, it wasn’t as if they had ever been told to follow the call instead of taking care of family and burying the dead. Yet they were using those things as an excuse to put off their response to God’s call. Second, following God’s call very well could have meant doing those things they were involved in, but in a way that honored God. The demand was to put God first, and one could conceivably do that and still take care of family, friends and even business.
What’s at issue here is right relationship. Responding to God’s call must always come first, but responding to God’s call may mean raising one’s family, tending to a sick parent or elderly relative, reading to one’s children, grieving the loss of a loved one or battling an illness. It’s a matter of priorities, and true freedom means putting God first in all of that, trusting that God will help us to make sense of the ordinariness of our lives.
Because we really are usually called out of the ordinariness of our lives. That was true of Elisha today. He was minding his own business – literally – by plowing the fields. He certainly must have been a man of means, because he had twelve yoke of oxen – that would have been a lot in those days. And yet he gives it all up on the spot to follow God as Elijah’s successor. The way Elisha’s call happened might appear a little strange, but we actually use elements of that call in our own Church’s Liturgy. Elisha’s call happened by Elijah throwing his cloak over him. It seems like an odd gesture, but it symbolized Elisha taking over the mantle of authority from Elijah. It’s a symbol I can resonate with, because at my Ordination to the priesthood, one of the most profound moments for me was the moment in the rite when two of my priest friends took off my deacon’s stole and put the priest’s stole over my shoulders. I knew in that moment that the Ordination was done; that I really had become a priest. I could almost literally feel the weight of following Christ in that particular way. It was an incredible moment for me, and it must have been so for Elisha. In fact, he was so excited that he ran back, slaughtered his oxen and chopped up the yokes to use as fuel to cook the flesh and feed his people. Doing that was a complete break with his former life – he had nothing to go back to, and it showed the lengths to which he would go in order to do God’s will.
So as we prepare to celebrate Independence Day next Sunday, may we all remember that true freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, regardless of the implications for others. True freedom doesn’t mean license to live an immoral life. Instead, true freedom is about living the life God has called us to live and following as committed disciples, free to be bound up in the life of Christ. True freedom means breaking with anything that holds us back from becoming the free sons and daughters of God we were created to be. True freedom means putting God first and serving him in the ordinariness of our lives, following his call to our dying breath. True freedom means finding the same joy that our Psalmist finds today when he sings, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”