Free At Last
by Fr. Jack McArdle
Remember what I said about original sin involving believing a lie, and, therefore, coming under new management? How Adam and Eve hid, and that, in some ways, we are still hiding, as we find it particularly difficult to own up to truth. The influence of the kingdom of darkness was very tangible and real, right from that moment on.
Jesus came to answer the lie. He spoke in a very direct and straightforward way. He said that Satan was a liar, and the father of lies. He asked us to stop hiding, to come out into the light, and let his Spirit of truth lead us, and we would be free. He invited us to come back to the Garden, and he assured us that there was a great big welcome waiting for us there, even if we did get pig's food all over our faces.
When I was a child, I learned in my catechism that God is immutable. I didn't understand what that meant, at the time, despite every effort to explain. Anyhow, now that I can look up a dictionary, I know that it means that God does not change, that he is the same yesterday, today, and always. God is creator, and he always will be. Will he destroy this planet? No, he won't, we'll do that ourselves....we're already working on the seas, the rain forests, and the ozone layer. God is love. Could God ever end up not loving you? No way. But, suppose someone ended up in hell, does God still love that person? God's love hasn't changed at all, even if, by deliberate choice, someone has put himself outside of that love.
It's like a light shining on me here, as I write. If I went out the door, and closed the door behind me, the light is still shining, and has not changed in any way. It is I that has cut myself off from the light. I remember seeing a poster one time of a cat lying down, looking up at me, and written on the poster were the words "Does God seem far away?" Down at the bottom of the poster, in small print, were the words "Guess who moved?"
Jesus lived on this earth for thirty-three years, three of which were spent in public ministry, when he passed on to us what the Father told him to tell us. Now, supposing he had been given three minutes to deliver his message, rather than three years, and there was a stop-watch on him, to check the time exactly, and after that, he had to leave, to return to his Father. What do you think he would have said in that three minutes? I really don't know, but I would like to think that he might have told us the story of the Prodigal Son, because that, I believe, is the gospel in miniature.
It is the story of someone who used his fee-will to do his own thing, to do things, and to live his life, as he chose. He wandered far from base, and things went from bad to worse for him. Eventually, he hit bottom, when he found himself eating the food left behind by pigs. As a Jew, he grew up believing that pigs were unclean, and must be avoided at all costs. To be taking care of pigs was bad enough, but the idea of a Jew actually eating the food that was given to the pigs was really rock-bottom. The story tells us that "he came to his senses", in other words his eyes, ears, and other senses woke up to the plight he was in, and the full horror of it hit him, with full force. He decided there was no future for him down that road, so he made a decision. He decided to face up to the truth of what had happened, and to get out of there, and return to what he had left behind. His guilt and disgust was very real, and he doubted that he could regain what he had thrown away. He came home to face the music, and to take his medicine, believing that he had earned rejection, and condemnation.
Imagine his surprise and delight, when he was met with a hug, and with a sincere and warm welcome, without a word of condemnation. It must have taken some time for this to sink in, but, no doubt, he came to accept that the welcome was sincere, and he had actually come home to even more than he had thrown away. It is a very touching, and human story, and Jesus intended it to leave us in no doubt about the kind of God we are dealing with.
Original sin was about falling for a lie, and coming under the influence of Satan, the father of lies. Salvation is about being led by the Spirit of truth, out of that kingdom of lies, and being led into truth, and, as Jesus said, the truth will set me free. Like the Prodigal Son, I, too, can come to my senses, and be willing to look at myself honestly, and to face up to what I see there.
There was a man who went to work every morning, with his lunch-box under his arm. Every day, at lunch-time, in the canteen, he went through the same routine. He opened the box, took out a sandwich, unwrapped it, separated the two slices of bread, and moaned to himself, "Oh, no, not cheese again!" This went on day after day, until his work-mates got annoyed with him. One of them asked him why he never asked his wife to put something else in the sandwiches. "What wife?" replied the man, "I'm not married." "And who, then, makes the sandwiches?" asked his pal, to which he replied "I do."
Coming to my senses is about looking at my life, and seeing who is making it the way it is. It is about taking responsibility for my actions, and when I am wrong, being willing to admit it. There is a vast difference between saying "I did wrong", and "I was wrong." I could admit that I did wrong, and then go on to blame you, the government, or the weather for causing me to do it. Admitting that I was wrong, is to take personal responsibility for my actions, and to ensure that the buck stops with me.
I remember a man coming to me, some years ago, and he was drunk. He wanted me to pray with him, and when I asked him what he wanted me to pray for, he said "For will-power, Father." I smiled, and said that, of course, I would say a prayer with him, but first I asked him to go away, and think about what he was doing with his time and money, and the following day, if he had the will, he should come back to me, and, together, we would ask for the power!
If I have the will, God will give me the power to do anything. Guilt is not from God, and God is not at all into the business of laying guilt trips on anyone. Jesus was forever challenging people to look into their hearts, and to examine their behaviour. He interupted the woman at the well, who was debating whether is was better to worship God in one place, in preference to another. He asked her to go call her husband, knowing that she had been married many times, and the man with whom she now lived was not her husband. In other words, stop the waffling, and don't try to gloss over the truth. He was not condemning her, but I feel she was trying to free her from a burden he saw that she was carrying, and was doing everything except face up to the truth as it was. Don't forget, truth and freedom go hand in hand, and it is for the freedom that he wants me to face up to the truth.
There are three different types of courage, animal courage, human courage, and moral courage. Animal courage is pure native instinct. A mother will dash into a burning building to rescue a child, without any thought about her own safety. A rat will attack, if cornered. There is no thought going into the process, it is just pure instinct, and we all possess this, to a greater or lesser degree. Next is human courage, the type that is needed to defuse a bomb, or talk an armed man into surrendering. This is not so common, and not everybody possesses it. Lastly, there is moral courage, the highest, and rarest of all. This enables me stand up for what I know is right, and condemn what I know to be wrong, irrespective of what others think.
I am not speaking of the brutal honesty that some people glory in, where a point of view is expressed, irrespective of who gets hurt in the process. The ideal of proper communication is to strive to combine honesty with kindness. I could visit someone in hospital today, who asks me how I think she looks, and I could tell her that I thinks she looks awful, and that she'll probably die to-night! I could be totally honest in saying that, but it would not be the kindest thing to say. And again, if I were in a position of authority and responsibility, I could be so kind to other that I turn a blind eye to unbecoming behaviour, and unacceptable practices. In doing so, I may be kind, but certainly not honest.
When it comes to standing before God, the only requirement is that I be honest, no matter how broken I am, or how far away I have wandered. A sheep that is lost is inconsolable, because sheep have such an instinct for the flock. This was the image Jesus chose to emphasise how my heart can be, and how alienated I can feel when I have wandered from the truth. I can even be totally alienated from myself, as I flog myself with guilt, and self-accusation. I am convinced that the Lord longs to generate reconciliation within my heart.
I am every person in the gospel. I am the Prodigal Son, and his self-righteous brother ; I am the Pharisee and the publican ; I am Martha and I am Mary. How the Lord would love if the self-righteous brother would hug the Prodigal Son, or the Pharisee would go to the back of the temple to embrace the publican. Reconciliation is about embracing brokenness, either in myself, or in those around me. It is about compassion and acceptance, that does not sit in judgement. It is this kind of love, and this alone, that will enable the ghosts of hurts and sin come forth to be dealt with.
The Inner Child within each of us is very sensitive, and is terrified of scorn and rejection. That Inner Child wouldn't hurt a fly, and Jesus asks us to let such a child come to him, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.
A mother was planning a night out, and was really looking forward to it. She went to a lot of trouble, and even made herself a beautiful dress for the occasion. Her little daughter, who was very demanding, and liked getting her own way, did not like the idea of mammy going anywhere without bringing her. She found the dress lying on the bed, and immediately she got a scissors, and cut lumps out of it. It was several hours later when the mother discovered what her daughter had done. She was shattered, and she just threw herself on the bed, sobbing her heart out. The little girl heard her, and entered the room, and became deeply ashamed of what she had done. She approached the mother, who just turned her back on her, and ignored her. No matter how she tried, the mother continued to cut her off. Eventually, the little girl grabbed the mother's arm, and began begging her "Mammy, mammy, please take me back, please take me back." The mother knew that the cry came from her little heart, so she turned and embraced her, as they cried together. The girl, somehow, knew that what she had done had put her outside the pale, and she desperately needed to be let back in again. She knew there was no life for her outside of her mother's love and acceptance. It is the same with ourselves and God. He is longing for us to ask to be taken back again, and his arms are always stretched out in a gesture of welcome.
Faith is a response to love, and Jesus has died to show us how much he loves. "God loved the world so much," Jesus told Nicodemus, "that he sent his only son, so that they who believe in him might have eternal life.
I remember seeing a poster one time which said "I asked my God how much he loved me, and he stretched out both arms fully, and said 'This much', and then he died". Greater love than this no man has, that a man should lay down his life for his friends. "You are my friends...," said Jesus.
He has called you friend, as he invite you into a deeper personal relationship with him. The betrayal of Judas was made all the more ugly by being paraded as friendship, when Judas walked up to him, and kissed him. Even then, Jesus called him friend, and Judas would have been warmly embraced if he were prepared to face up to what was going on in his life. Judas betrayed Jesus, and then ran away, and put himself outside any hope of Jesus being there for him.
There is story in Orthodox spirituality about the end of time. The throngs are making their way into heaven, and Jesus is seen to be standing there, looking off into the distance. Someone asked him what he was doing, and he said "I am waiting for Judas". Jesus showed through everything he said and did, that he had a special place in his heart for sinners, who were ready to come home to the truth, to where they belonged. "I did not come to condemn the world, but to save it", he said. Sinners were drawn to him, as to a magnet, and he himself was condemned and crucified for nothing more than that he hung around with sinners, and, as the gospel says, "even eating with them". He befriended and defended those who were rejected and condemned by the religious leaders of his day. They discovered that they were accepted by him, and were safe in his presence.
How often is the word freedom used in connection with Jesus! Before he was born the prophets spoke of a Messiah coming to set them free, to free them from slavery, to free them from the oppression of their enemies. John the Baptist's father Zachary said that the Messiah would free us from fear, and from the hands of our foes. We are told in Scripture that if Jesus sets you free, you will, indeed, be free. How many thousands of members of Alcoholics Anonymous throughout the world can vouch for the way the Lord has set them free from a slavery over which they had no control. Jesus came to set us free, because, in many ways we can be prisoners...prisoners of fear, guilt, depression, or of self-will run riot. In the Mass we say "Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free, you are the saviour of the world."
Imagine the following story. This man is in prison, awaiting execution. He has led a violent life, and he is about to meet a violent end. One morning he hears a loud commotion up in the court-yard overhead, and he is convinced they are coming to get him. He can hear timber being prepared for a cross, and he knows that is the kind of death that awaits him. Eventually the long-dreaded sound is heard approaching. It is the march of soldiers coming to bring him out. His name is Barabbas, and this is the end of the road for him. The door of his cell is opened, and one of the soldiers beckons him to come on out. In fact, the soldier is actually telling him to go home! There's no way he's going to fall for that old shoot-in-back-when-I-tried-to-escape-trick. He refuses to budge, even when the soldiers tells him plainly that he is free, and all charges have been dropped. Eventually, the soldiers grab a hold of him, and throw him out. He lurks in the shadows, sure there is some catch in this. The cheers and shouts of the crowd have faded away as they apparently went out the country. It is some hours later, and he is still skulking in the shadows, when he spots a former bandit friend of his passing by. He catches his attention, and when he comes over to him, he asks what has been happening all morning. His friend seemed amazed that Barabbas was unaware of what has just happened. He brought him outside the town, and pointed to three crosses on a hill. "Do you see that cross in the centre? Well, that was the cross they had prepared for you, but that man took your place. Now, you really are free, and, if you take my advice, you'll get going when the going is good, and make use of the freedom that has been earned for you."
Which reminds me of an incident from my early childhood in the country. This man used come around buying hens. He would buy a hen, tie her legs, and toss her in the back of his cart. One day, he decided to give us local yokels a lesson in hen psychology, so he reached in with a scissors and snipped the twine tying the legs of one of the hens. I was amazed when I saw that she didn't move, or make any attempt to fly away. Actually, he knew the hen wouldn't move, because, understanding hens more than I did, he knew they were stupid, and a hen would never realise she was free if all the hens around her were still tied up. If he had snipped the twine on the legs of all the hens, they would all have flown away. It can be the same with me. In the midst of people burdened with worry, guilt, anxiety, and alienation, I can completely forget that I'm as free as I want to be, I am as free as I myself will allow myself to be. God gives me nothing, while offering me everything, and it's totally up to me whether I accept it or not.
In the next chapter, I will deal, in some detail, with reconciliation with God, myself, and others; about repentence, conversion, and, in general, how I can rid my life of the wreckage of the past. In a later chapter I will have much to say about hope, about being highly optimistic in the midst of our brokenness, and about how God himself, in Jesus, is walking with us every step of the way. When Jesus asks me "Who do you say that I am?", I want to be able to tell him that, yes, he is my personal saviour, and my heart is one place where I really want Incarnation to take place. Like Mohammed and the mountain, I couldn't get to God by himself, so he has to come to me. With all my heart, I want to welcome him into the brokenness, the sin, and the hurts, and let him get on with salvation there. I want to believe that he means every word he says when he tells me that it is for people like me that he has come. Healthy people, he said, do not need a doctor , but those who are ill. I have come to seek and to save those who are lost.
I join the Prodigal Son, and the publican, and I confess that I am a sinner, and that I have sinned against heaven, and against others, and that I certainly need a saviour. O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. There was a man on another cross beside Jesus on Calvary, who may never have said a prayer in his life. He asked for help, and was offered heaven right there. It is totally free, and I would be totally free, if I accepted the offer.
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Come 'Ere Till I Tell You copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.