Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Word of Truth Sets Us Free

Jesus said that if we continue in his word we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. Primarily, the truth we come to know is Jesus Himself, for He said, “I am the Truth.” The crippled woman whom Jesus healed in the Gospel (Luke 13:10-17) must have come to know Him, for He said, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” A few verses later, as Jesus was explaining this Sabbath cure to the synagogue leader, He again spoke of her liberation: “This daughter of Abraham, whom satan has bound for 18 years, ought she not to have been set free…?” So we see that it is not a matter of indifference that we come to know the liberating truth of Christ. For if we are not set free by Him we remain bound by satan.

Jesus said elsewhere that to sin is to enter into bondage or enslavement. So the primary liberation Christ brings is freedom from sin—because the bondage to sin prevents us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Was this crippled woman in sin, that Jesus should say she was bound by satan? Perhaps, but we are not told explicitly. It could be that, as in the case of the blind man (John 9) that her affliction was not due to sin but was for the sake of the manifestation of the glory of God when Christ should appear to heal her. But all sickness and bodily sufferings are generally categorized as “physical evils,” and as such have a relation to sin—not necessarily as a direct result of one’s personal sin, but the fact is that suffering is in the world only because sin is in the world.

Our liberation comes from continuing in Jesus’ word, as He said. But what does that mean? Does it mean reading the Bible every day? Yes, but that’s not all it means. Just as Jesus is in his own person the Truth, He is also in his own person the Word. So continuing in his word is not only regularly reading the words on the pages of the Bible. The term translated “continue” is a form of the Greek meno, which has several meanings. It means persevere with, remain, abide, dwell within. It’s the same word used when Jesus said: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (Jn. 6:56). So in order to know the truth that sets us free from satan’s bondage, we have to abide in the Word, in the living and eternal Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. There are no simple formulas or techniques for gaining sanctity or salvation. Everything always hinges upon a personal relationship of faith and love with Christ, and through Him with the All-holy Trinity. That’s how we come to know the truth; that’s how we are set free from the crippling bondage of sin and spiritual slavery.

I would also like to look at this Gospel passage in light of the previous nine verses, which in a certain way set the context. Here Jesus speaks in two different ways about repentance. He first gives examples of two groups of people who suffered sudden and tragic deaths. His question was: Do you think they were worse sinners than everyone else because that happened to them? And his conclusion: No, but I tell you that you will all likewise perish if you do not repent. I referred to this Gospel five years ago in an article on the 9/11 tragedy: do you think that those who were in the World Trade Center were worse sinners than all other New Yorkers? No, but if people don’t repent, they can expect similarly to perish. Such events serve as reminders of our need to repent. The victims of these tragedies were not singled out for their greater sinfulness, but their deaths show us what can happen at any time, and hence the need for always being ready to stand before God when our souls are required of us.

Similarly, what about the woman bent over by infirmity for 18 years? Was she a worse sinner than all others in Jerusalem? No, the Lord would say, but if you do not repent, you will in some way also be bound by satan. This woman, unlike those upon whom the tower in Siloam fell or those that died when the Twin Towers fell, was given time, allowed to live to see the day of her healing and liberation, and perhaps this was evidence of her repentant heart and her faith in God. This leads us to look at the parable of repentance that immediately precedes the account of her healing. Here there is a call for repentance, but without the sudden death of the sinner. Here a plea is made for a little more time to amend one’s life before the definitive judgment comes.

The owner of the fig tree noticed that it had not borne any fruit for three years, so he ordered it to be cut down. But his gardener said that he would work with it for one more year, and if it bore fruit, all well and good; if not, it would be cut down. I wonder if perhaps we could consider our guardian angels to be the gardeners of our souls (then they’d be gardening angels!). They work with us and try to get us to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps the Master, if He sees we are bearing no fruit, will prepare to pronounce an unfavorable—though righteous and true—judgment upon us, but our angels ask Him to give us a little more time. They will work with us, so that perhaps we will begin the bear the required fruit. And if so, then there will be rejoicing among the angels of God, as Jesus said, over the repentance of a single sinner. But we have to be aware of the importance of preparing our souls to meet God, because even if we are granted a “stay of execution,” it will not be permanent; our accountability still remains, and the day of our death will inexorably arrive.

Advent is a time for reflecting upon our spiritual lives—the extent to which we may still be in bondage to sin, and hence to satan; the extent to which we have heeded the call to repentance, to change our lives sufficiently to bear good spiritual fruit. Let us ask our “gardening” angels to do whatever it takes to enable us to bear this fruit so as to be pleasing to the Master and be allowed to flourish, not only in the harsh climate and rocky soil of this life, but forever in the heavenly paradise.

If we ask our angels what we have to do to co-operate with God’s grace and their labors to make us fruitful, they will probably say: If you abide in Jesus’ words, that is, in the Word who is Jesus, you will come to know the truth, that is, the Truth that is Jesus, and the Truth will set you free from your infirmities and bondage—free to bear fruit for the glory of God and for the happiness of the angels who rejoice over repentant sinners.

So, as we come one step closer to the great celebration of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, let us go a little deeper into prayer, into the examination of our consciences, into reflection upon the mysteries revealed in Sacred Scripture, into the spirit of watching and waiting that characterizes this holy season—all of which means abiding in the Word, the Truth that sets us free to live as disciples and friends of our Lord. How wonderful it will be to feel the healing hand of the Lord upon us, to hear Him saying to us: “You are set free from your infirmities.” Then, like the once-bent woman, we will stand up straight and give glory to God!