Wednesday, April 1, 2009

If The Son of God Sets You Free, You Will Be Truly Free

Today’s First Reading, from the Book of the Prophet Daniel, we hear that the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, had a golden statue of the god of the Babylonians set up in the town square, and commanded that everyone worship the statue, and serve Baal, the god of Babylon. Three young Hebrews, known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, refused to obey the King’s command. The King became furious, and ordered a furnace to be heated seven times more than usual, and commanded the strongest of his soldiers to bind the three young men with shackles, and throw them into the white-hot furnace.
But as he was watching, the King turned to his nobles and asked, “Didn’t you put three men into the furnace? Why is it that I see four men, all of them unfettered and unhurt? And the fourth man looks like a angel of God?

The King was moved deeply, and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who sent his angel to deliver his servants who trusted in him.” He ordered the three young men released, and gave them positions of honor in his service.

The story of the three young men in the fiery furnace is a wonderful example of the power of faith in action. These three young men had complete confidence in God. Early in the story, in verses not included in today’s reading, they say, “If God wants to save us from the fire, it will happen. If not, then we accept his will, for we are his children, and his servants.” They did not worship the God of Israel because they thought he would shield them from all harm. They knew the history of their nation, God’s chosen people, too well not to understand that the disasters that befall them have always been the consequence of their own arrogant desire to do their own will instead of His.

If we look at the other lead character in this dramatic scene, Nebuchadnezzar, we see a different focus on the “big picture”. Nebuchadnezzar, at the outset, asks the young men, “Who is the God who can deliver you from my power?” He really believed that he, the emperor of Babylon, the ruler of the world from the Inland Sea (the Mediterranean) northward to the Caucasus and eastward to the Indian subcontinent. His initial reaction to their defiance, not surprisingly, was blazing anger. His response was to set the young men ablaze. But when he saw what happened in that furnace, he realized his error, released the three young men, and allowed the people of Israel to worship their God, who obviously was more powerful than his idols.

Today’s gospel tells the story of another group of “slow learners”, not pagans from a foreign land, where God’s people are held captive, but Pharisees and Rulers of Israel, who seem unable to adapt themselves to a new reality. Jesus tells them, “If you abide by my word, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” “We are children of Abraham. We have never been slaves”, they respond. Jesus answers, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. If the Son of God forgives your sins, then you will really be free.”

They repeated, “Our father is Abraham!” Jesus said, “If you were really Abraham’s children, you would trust in God, as he did. But now, you are plotting to kill me, because I am telling you the truth I heard from God. You are doing the work of your father!”

“We are not bastards. God is our Father!” “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I was sent by the Father. I did not come on my own; He sent me.”

One of the difficulties we face in hearing this gospel is that words like God, love, faith, freedom, are like empty vessels into which we can pour whatever we choose. For some, their god is their bank account. Their love is their own pleasure, and whoever can give them pleasure. Their faith is in their own power. This does not mean that true love, true faith, and true freedom do not exist, or that God does not exist. It is rather to point out that the freedom to do as we please is not really freedom at all, it is submission to pleasure, to profit, to power. It is “freedom” that enslaves not only the other who is diminished by my self-centeredness, but that diminishes me, making me less than who I could I could be, less that who God wants me to be.

Are you – am I – truly free? If I am, I respect the freedom of every other child of God. I do unto others as I would have them do unto me. I respect their right to worship God according to their own customs. If I am convinced that I know the truth, then I strive to teach them the truth by my example, not by force of arms. Not like car bombing, as in 20th century Middle East; nor by the dunking stool, as in 18th century New England; nor by water-boarding, as in 16th century Rome, in the Supreme Universal Council of the Holy Inquisition.

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