Freedom is a concept held in high regard within American culture. In many ways, this is to be expected: freedom – whether it be the right to self-determination, freedom from oppressive governments, freedom from all that prevents one from living a happy, prosperous life – was a staple of Enlightenment political thought, and America was one of the first nations to incorporate these political doctrines into its official governmental system.
For Americans, freedom is something emphasized even more as we approach the day in which we celebrate the birth of our nation. Yet, what constitutes freedom? A lot is riding on having a proper understanding of freedom – socially, morally and politically. Is freedom merely freedom from oppressive governments or anything that gets in the way of self-determination, or is it something more?
I think it is Providential that Catholics this Sunday – the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Times – read the readings they did. The first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom, says,
God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living. For He fashioned all things that they might have being, and the creatures of the world are wholesome…It was the wicked who, with words and hands invited death, considered it a friend, and pined for it, and made a covenant with it, because they deserve to be allied with it. … For God formed us to be imperishable; the image of His own nature He made us. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it. (Wisdom 1:13-14, 16, 2:23-24)
God is all-good. God is also the source of all being and existence. All that exists, exists because it was created by God. All creaturely existence is a participation in the existence of God. Because God created all things, and God is all-good, all that exists is, by its nature, good. Death was often associated with sin as death was the opposite of life, and thus death ran counter to God’s creating act. There are multiple different levels of meaning at work here. Fr. Richard J. Clifford and Fr. Roland E. Murphy, in their commentary on Genesis found in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, note how, in Genesis 2:17, God says how the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit is death. Death, here, means to be “cut off, excluded from communion with God.” It did not refer to literal death, since immortality, in many ancient Near Eastern cultures, was associated only with the gods. Yet, with such texts as the above verses from Wisdom and St. Paul’s words in Romans 5, Genesis 2:17 was reinterpreted to refer to literal death.  Some have suggested that the wicked who “invite death” was a reference to those who denied the existence of life after death, and thus the highest good one could attain is the pleasures of this life. They thus act accordingly by living a life of vicious hedonism. Physical death was inevitable, considering the feeble and finite nature of the human body; yet, the wicked embraced their mortality as something that had the final say in all aspects of life, instead of being merely a transition from this life to the next. 
This death could also be a reference to the figurative death of sin. St. Ambrose of Milan interprets death in this way in his commentary on Genesis chapter 3:
Keep in mind that man did not create life. By carrying out and observing the precepts of God it was possible for man to find life. This was the life mentioned by the Apostle: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3) Man, therefore, was, figuratively speaking, either in the shadow of life – because our life on earth is but a shadow – or man had life, as it were, in a pledge, for he had been breathed on by God. … Hence, he [Adam before the Fall] was in the shadow of life, whereas sinners are in the shadow of death. 
True life was the spiritual life that came from union with God, but true death was the figurative death of the soul that came through evil. Since God created all that exists, and all that exists is therefore good, evil and spiritual death did not enter into the world by the design of God, but by our sin. The devil, in an act of rebellion against God, tempted man to sin, and all that give in to this temptation dwell in the spiritual death of sin.
All men have given in to this sin. We have all sinned at some point. Unfortunately, as St. Paul says in Romans chapter 7, man is in a perpetual state of struggle with sin from which he cannot escape. This is precisely what God’s redemption is: liberation from sin. The responsonsorial psalm for this week was taken from Psalm 30, one verse of which read, “I will praise You, Lord, for You have rescued me.” (Psalm 30:2)
What this liberation from sin means is given a deeper level of meaning in the New Testament readings. The Gospel readings – taken from Mark 5 – speak of two distinct miracle stories that are intertwined into one, overarching narrative. In the New Testament, miracles were meant to signify the overturning of sin and the coming of the Kingdom of God. As the Catholic New Testament scholar Fr. Raymond E. Brown noted, miracles were not simply meant to astound the people, nor were they even meant to be external proofs of the coming of the Kingdom. As Brown wrote, “When Jesus healed the sick or resuscitated the dead, he was breaking the Satanic power that manifested itself in illness and death. … Jesus by His actions clearly presents Himself as changing the governance of the world and of human lives, introducing God’s dominion in place of oppressive Satanic rule.”  Jesus’ miracles counteract certain things which were seen as expressions of the demonic, and are often closely tied with certain teachings of Jesus. They thus were one of the many means by which the Kingdom of God was established.
God’s Kingdom, established by Christ, overturns sin. I think this is seen particularly in the story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead. The reading from Wisdom shows how it is man who brings death into the world, but it is only Christ who can reverse it. On a symbolic or spiritual level, it is by man that evil enters into the world; it is only by Christ that we are freed from it.
To be liberated from sin is true freedom. We see a model of how to live out this freedom in Christ. In the reading from St. Paul, taken from the Second Letter to the Corinthians, it is shown that there is an antithetical parallel between Christ and us. The text reads, “For you know the gracious act of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you may be made rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) We were lowly and sinful, Christ was glorious and all-good; yet, Christ, by lowering Himself, freed us from sin and elevated us out of our lowliness.
This is something we are meant to emulate. Jesus Himself says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) As God used His sovereignty for the sake of our salvation; likewise, we are to use our freedom “not…to indulge the flesh, but to serve one another humbly in love” (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:13). It is in obedience to the moral law, which has its highest expression in love of God and neighbor, which is the most authentic expression of man’s freedom.
So, as Americans celebrate their freedom this upcoming Independence Day, let us reflect upon the nature of freedom. Is freedom merely not being governed by oppressive forces? Is freedom merely being allowed to live your life however you want? Or is freedom being liberated from sin to serve God and neighbor in love?
- To read the readings for this week, see this link: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/070118.cfm
- Clifford, Fr. Richard J., S.J., and Murphy, Fr. Roland E., O.Carm. “Genesis,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm. (Upper Saddle Hill: Prentice Hall, 1990), pg. 13
- Wright, Addison G., S.S. “Wisdom,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm. (Upper Saddle Hill: Prentice Hall, 1990), pg. 514
- St. Ambrose of Milan. On Paradise, pg. 306-307. Accessed at https://sites.google.com/site/aquinasstudybible/home/genesis/st-ambrose-on-gen-2-3