13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: 1 Kgs 19:16b, 19-21
Second Reading: Gal 5:1, 13-18
Gospel Reading: Lk 9:51-62

At first sight, this Sunday’s Second Reading seems self-contradictory. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” St. Paul says. “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

People are right to “prize freedom” and “strive” for it “eagerly,” says Vatican II. However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church warns that human freedom has certain “insurmountable limits,” physical and moral.

Even in ordinary language, the word “free” cannot stand on its own. To see this, imagine a man saying, out of the blue, “I’m free!” Before we can know what he means, we must ask him two questions.

First: “Free from what?” His answer might be free from supervision, free from debt, or free from prison: in general, free from restraint.

Second: “Free for what?” or “Free to do what?” His answer might be free to travel, free to spend money, or free to relax: in general, free to do what he wants.

How free is this man? It depends on his answer to the first question. If all he means is that he is free from prison on weekends, or free from his cell so that he can get some exercise in the prison yard, is he “truly” free?

It also depends on his answer to the second question. For example, if all he means is that he is free to commit another crime so he can get back into the familiar environment of prison, is he “truly” free?

We sometimes say that people are “imprisoned” or “enslaved” by fears, like the fear of getting fat, or by cravings and desires, like those of an alcoholic for alcohol.

We would not ordinarily say they were imprisoned or enslaved by their fear of overspending or their desire for knowledge. However, we might say they were enslaved by their fear of overspending if they passed up a good deal rather than borrow a small amount of money for one day. We might say that they were imprisoned by their desire for knowledge if they put their studies ahead of human relationships.

We use the word “imprisoning” or “enslaving” about anything that limits our pursuit of something we think higher, better, more worthy of pursuit.

For example, a girl who puts slimness above food will say that a girl who puts food above slimness is “a slave” to food, while the second girl will call the other “a slave” to fashion.

No one, we reason, would prefer the worse to the better unless he were constrained to do so, like a slave. Conversely, we reason that someone is “free” insofar as he uses his freedom to pursue the higher and better. It follows that someone is “truly” free if he uses his freedom to pursue the highest and the best.

This Sunday’s Readings tell us unequivocally what that is: namely, the Kingdom of God. We are truly free if we seek God and his kingdom above everything else, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer; otherwise we are enslaved by inferior things, good though they may be.

God created man subject to his own free choice, so that he might seek his Creator of his own accord, says the Catechism. Our human value requires us to act “out of conscious and free choice” and not “by external constraint or blind impulses in ourselves.” 

We display this dignity when we rid ourselves of all “slavery to passions” and freely choose what is best.

Human freedom “attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.” The choice to do evil is “an abuse of freedom,” leading to “the slavery of sin.”

Every sin “entails an unhealthy attachment” to God’s creation, leading us to prefer a created good to its Creator, who is goodness itself. Hence the importance of the virtue of detachment, which we cultivate by penance.