In today’s Gospel there are two references to people “changing their minds.” The first, a positive case, is the son who initially said “no” to his father’s orders. The second is expressed negatively, describing the chief priests and the elders who refused to believe. One change of mind leads to obedience, the other to obstinacy. This is exactly how the Catechism defines human freedom: “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life…. As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach” (CCC 1731-32). Our readings for today set before us this reality of human freedom and its possibilities, in the hope that we will make responsible use of it.
The first reading describes for us the power of freedom. When we make free choices, there is a force behind them which generates momentum. If we turn this volitional force toward sin, the Lord says, we must die; if we turn it towards virtue, we will preserve our life; we shall not die. Someone might remark that the fact is all of us will die whether we use our freedom for sin or for virtue. This reading, however, speaks of “death” and “life” in relation to the quality of our life after death. For more light on what type of “death” is being referred to here, we can turn to the prophet Daniel. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some to everlasting life, others to reproach and everlasting disgrace” (Dn 12:2). This tells us that to “die” in the afterlife is to be condemned to a life of everlasting disgrace, an eternal destruction of our dignity as human persons. To “preserve our life” in the afterlife is to perpetuate our dignity. Our use of freedom turns us toward one path or the other.
While the Ezekiel reading speaks about the consequences of our free choices in the afterlife, Jesus stresses our personal responsibility in the present moment. He challenges us to decide now, and the decision we must make is whether to believe in him or not. The specific path of belief is through repentance and conversion. Jesus sets before us John the Baptist and his fundamental message of repentance: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Mt 3:2). The Lord challenges us: “When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.” It is clear: the right “change of mind” leads to salvation.
But how can we make progress in repentance and conversion? What do we need to do? St. Paul guides us in today’s second reading with his beautiful hymn on the kenosis or self-emptying of Jesus. “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” Paul challenges us: if we believe in Christ then we must have his “attitude” – meaning we must be conformed to his way of self-emptying. We must turn away from our self-centeredness and turn towards humility and obedience. If we direct our freedom toward ourselves, our momentum leads us to everlasting disgrace. But if we freely choose, with Christ, the way of self-emptying, our momentum leads us to perpetual dignity. If we follow Christ’s kenosis, we can be assured that God will greatly exalt us too.
Self-emptying, however, is very hard to do! Who in his right mind will choose to give up his hard-earned possessions and well-deserved reputation, his titles, his wealth? It seems to go against reason, justice, personal dignity, and common sense. The problem is that we tend to focus so much on ourselves, what we can do, and what we want. We forget God who created us and who has better plans for us.
Let us turn to the Catechism once again for more wisdom on freedom: “Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude…. The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just” (CCC 1731, 1733). This tells us that our exercise of freedom is truly personal. This means not only that we, as persons, are making a choice when we use our freedom, but also that our choice is about a Person; we are choosing to accept or reject Someone. That Someone is “our beatitude.” It is not unreasonable to empty ourselves of everything else if we do so to be filled with his life. This is the Lord who lovingly invites us: “My sheep hear my voice, says the Lord; I know them, and they follow me.”
Is my exercise of freedom directed toward God? What is God calling me to turn away from in order to turn towards him? How can I be more self-emptying?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.