Do you like living in a free country? I certainly do. But are we ever completely free – even in the USA?
When I was in elementary school, I remember hearing my parents and my grandfather using the expression, “It’s a free country!” I understood that concept about as well as any eight-year-old kid could – and the next time my parents told me to clean my room, guess what I told them?
I found out quickly that it might be a free country – but the Bill of Rights did not apply in our home.
Our freedom is limited. A hundred years ago, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in an opinion: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Our freedom is necessarily limited.
Freedom itself can take us captive – when it becomes a god to us. Just listen to the ongoing debate in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shootings: people who want to be free from all threats to their safety can find no common ground with people who want unconditional freedom to own and use firearms. They cannot hear each other over the shouting, so the conversation that must be had goes nowhere.
Other people’s freedom can impinge on our freedom. Just listen to the feverish debate over free speech versus freedom from being offended on college campuses, in town squares, and in stores as December 25th approaches.
Our Gospel lesson this morning comes to us from Matthew 20:24-28. We talked about this passage a bit last Lord’s Day – James and John’s mother asked Jesus to seat one of her sons at His right hand in His kingdom, and the other at His left. Now hear the Word of God as the story continues:
24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This is the paradox of obedience: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant …” Jesus lived out that paradox, in that He was God by His very nature – yet He submitted Himself to the will of His Father and went to the Cross. Because of that, He was crowned King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus gave up His freedom, so He was placed in charge of everything.
This is certainly counter-cultural. Here in America, we think of freedom as independence and individuality with no constraints. That was the lure of the Wild West: anyone remember Roy Rogers singing, “Don’t Fence Me In”?
Here, Jesus calls us to be servants – which might seem to be a pleasant way to make a living, but then he adds “and whoever wants to be first must be your slave …” Now service is one thing; but slavery has an entirely negative connotation. It involves one person’s belonging to another person – losing freedom. So Jesus – who came to set us free – tells us that that freedom comes from becoming His servants, His slaves, sold out to Him. Giving up our freedom is the way to true freedom, He tells us.
On the other hand, worldly freedom quickly leads to its own captivity. Just ask Ricky Jackson.
In 1975, when he was 18 years old, he was charged with a murder he did not commit. He was sentenced to die in Ohio’s electric chair, but that was commuted to life imprisonment because of some mistakes during his trial. It was not until 2014 that a Cuyahoga County judge dismissed the case against him.
After 39 years in prison, Jackson walked through the gates of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville – yet he could easily have remained a prisoner. He told Matthew Shaer in an interview for Smithsonian magazine, “I intend to live well, but it has nothing to do with whether I’m here in this nice house, or whether I’m homeless. It has to do with attitude. I’ve been given an opportunity, you understand? And I’m not going to waste it by holding grudges.” Jackson has even met with the man whose testimony led to his conviction. The man – who was a twelve-year-old boy at the time – was coerced by Cleveland police into lying about witnessing the murder.
Jackson could have allowed bitterness to keep him a prisoner after he got out, so he had and still has to make the choice every day to remain free. Every day, Jackson lives out this paradox. He understands that we can have freedom, but still be captives.
The freedom promised by the sexual revolution has left broken hearts, broken lives, broken bodies, broken families, and broken children in its wake. Many who thought that being set free from so-called “Victorian” morality would be heaven on earth are now trapped in addictions – like pornography, or the never-ending search for increasingly novel sexual adventures.
No-fault divorce – the freedom to end a marriage for “incompatibility” or “irreconcilable differences” – has left its own wreckage. Marriages that could have been saved with some work end prematurely – and the women and the kids wind up suffering the most. Women were told they could be set free from unfulfilling marriages, but the truth is that their standard of living usually takes a significant hit after a divorce.
Investment advisors promise us “financial freedom” – which means we become trapped on the roller-coaster ride that is the stock market. How many of us have to check our portfolio every morning – with a knot in our stomachs? How is that freedom? Maybe we become prisoners of the goal of being financially free.
But being bound to Jesus Christ and His kingdom of righteousness and peace brings true freedom and flourishing. As He put it in John 8:36, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Worldly freedom is slavery to sin and the consequences of it. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Galatians: “… we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.” We were slaves to the nature of the fallen Creation: anger, bitterness, jealousy, conflict, judgement, guilt, sorrow, mourning, pain, and death.
But we can trade all that for slavery to God, who is a good and gracious Master – who gives us freedom to live in love, joy, peace, hope, and promise.
We have listened to the lies of others and have lied to ourselves in an effort to de-guilt our lives – but it’s not working. Demand for psychologists and psychiatrists grows every year. We know deep inside that something is not right – yet we insist on having our freedom. And we pay dearly for it.
Freedom is not about being without a master, because – as Bob Dylan sang in 1979, “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Everyone must serve something or someone. But true freedom comes only by having the one good and gracious Master: Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. So find freedom by giving yourself to Him. Amen.