Journey thru John, Chapter 8: Freedom and Love

Jesus Speaks Near the Treasury, James Tissot (between 1886 and 1894)

This entire chapter is a direct continuation of the previous chapter.  It is the next day and Jesus is once again teaching in the temple courts.  Stay in the scene and watch the various exchanges between Jesus and the Jews.  Continue your process of discernment about the message Jesus is conveying.  If He is taking two full chapters to talk about it, it must be important, right?

In verse 23 Jesus says:

“You are from below.  I am from above.  You are of this world.  I am not of this world.” 

The lessons from the last chapter about the “world” are continuing.  Leave the scene for a moment and refresh your memory about those lessons.  Now return to the temple and take a moment to observe your surroundings.  Then bring your focus back to Jesus and allow the two chapters to build one upon the other as you listen to His words.

Reflect on verse 23 with last chapter’s understanding of the definition of the word “world” in mind. 

Then read verses 42 to 47 in the same context.  Jesus accuses the Jews of being “children of the devil.”  It’s a harsh accusation.  If you place yourself in the role of one of the Jews, you’re likely to find yourself quickly angered.  What is it about the Jews that makes them resistant to what Jesus is saying?  Why do they fight him instead of embracing truth, penance and conversion immediately?

Is Jesus justified in His accusation? Is the very fact that the Jews are so much “of the world” what gives the accusation weight?

Again I ask you, are you arrogant, or humble?

Does reading this chapter in this context help you to be more ready now to distance yourself from the “world” than you were last month?  Have you experienced some conversion in the intervening time?

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John Chapter 8, Verse 31-34:

To the Jews who had believed in him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.  How can you say that we shall be set free?”  Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, anyone who sins is a slave to sin.”

It happens that this chapter falls to me to reflect upon at the beginning of the month of July.  Perhaps that is why I felt so drawn to the word free as I read the chapter.  As an American, belief in the pre-eminence of freedom/liberty comes (or ought to come) to me as second nature. 

My oldest son’s middle name is Jefferson.  His brother’s middle name is Madison.  When they were born, I was very interested in the ideals that the founders of my country believed in.  Over time, my primary focus turned toward religion (my third son’s middle name is Augustine as I was not a Franciscan yet), but that early interest in revolutionary history never left me completely.

I could never forget, for instance, these words from the beginning of the Declaration of Independence:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Without getting too political here, I would just call out the inherent folly in our current understanding and interpretation of the separation of Church and State.  If Jefferson intended the utter separation that he has since been accused of, how could he have possibly built the entire argument for independence on two very distinct references to the laws of nature’s God and the self-evident unalienable rights granted to us by our Creator with a capital C?

That said, however, I would also suggest that our understanding of freedom has become skewed in other significant ways.  These words and our entire political heritage do, for instance, seem to set us free to consume and indulge and self-aggrandize at any level we like.  Over consumption and indulgence and self-aggrandizement, when carried to the extremes they are now often carried to, earn a new name, sin. It is no accident that Jesus closely associates slavery with sin in His teaching on truth and freedom in these verses.  

We must always remember that freedom entails responsibility.  When responsibility is severed from freedom, true freedom becomes unsustainable.  It is replaced by a pernicious false freedom rooted in sin that resigns us to a veiled slavery that is difficult and inconvenient to acknowledge.  It is instructive that the Declaration starts with references to God as justification for freedom because it is only by reference to God that the responsibilities of true freedom can be discerned and carried out.    

When God is removed from the equation, the resulting bondage is hard to see.  It wraps itself in the name of freedom and often we do not recognize that we have crossed the boundary and lost ourselves to the exact opposite of what we wanted.  Without detection we continue along never knowing that we forfeited what we thought we had due to our own shortsighted sinfulness. 

We find ourselves, just as the Jews in this chapter, bereft of freedom and slaves to sin without the wherewithal to recognize it.

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The SFO Rule itself actually contains the word free.  Because freedom is so often connected to politics, it’s not a concept that you would necessarily expect to find there, but Article 12 reads like this:

Witnessing to the good yet to come and obliged to acquire purity of heart because of the vocation they have embraced, they should set themselves free to love God and their brothers and sisters.

We’re supposed to love God and our brothers and sisters.  That’s pretty straightforward and uncontroversial. Try to read the instruction a little deeper.  Taken as a whole, the instruction is less straightforward.

Why is purity of heart mentioned at the same time as freedom?  There is no apparent link between these two ideas and yet they appear here together.

How exactly do I set myself free as the Rule suggests?  What actions must I take?

And what does freedom have to do with love?

The whole article is just this one sentence.  There are no further clarifications to be found.  I don’t know about you, but after thinking about it for a while, I feel like I need more information to know how to proceed.  I want to be pure of heart.  I want to be free.  I want to love God and my brothers and sisters.

But is it political freedom that is being discussed here?  If the result of freedom in America is the standard, the answer would seem to be no.  Americans might be nominally free, but they are often not particularly pure of heart and their love of God seems to have waned greatly in my lifetime.

The spiritual freedom that Jesus is talking about in the verse, the spiritual freedom that the rule is talking about, must be something else entirely.

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Let’s start with the first question.  How are purity of heart and freedom linked?

In the verse from Jesus, we see freedom and being a “slave to sin” juxtaposed against each other.  They are opposites.  It is also safe to say that we could juxtapose the phrases purity of heart and “slave to sin.”  Someone who is pure of heart would not be a “slave to sin” and vice versa.

Purity of heart and freedom become intimately linked and in some sense synonymous via this shared opposition to sin.  If “purity of heart” can be achieved, it seems freedom will be a fruit of the achievement. 

In Chapter 1 of the First Book of the Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano gives us a starting point.  He wants us to know who Francis was as his journey toward conversion began.  The chapter has this phrase as its heading: “How He Lived In The Clothing And Spirit Of The World.”

Here’s a couple selections from that first chapter that give a good indication of what that title means.  As you read them, you will quickly see that Celano is downright hostile to the “world” as Jesus used the word in the last chapter.

From the earliest years of his life his parents reared him (Francis) to arrogance in accordance with the vanity of the age.  And by long imitating their worthless life and character he himself was made more vain and arrogant.  A most wicked custom has been so thoroughly ingrained among those regarded as Christians, and this pernicious teaching has been so universally affirmed and prescribed, as though by public law that, as a result, they are eager to bring up their children from the very cradle too indulgently and carelessly.  

Note the word “indulgently.”  Is it all too familiar to you when you think about our own culture of freedom?  When I first typed this, I inadvertently typed the word “worldly” instead of the word worthless.  If I would have left the mistake, would you have found it out of context?  This is being written about Francis as a child more than 800 years ago.  But it could just as easily be written today and its meaning would suffer no dilution.

But when they begin to enter the gates of adolescence, what sort of individuals do you imagine they become?  Then without question, flowing on the tide of every kind of debauchery, since they are permitted to fulfill everything they desire, they surrendered themselves with all their energy to the service of outrageous conduct.  For having become slaves of sin ……

What Celano has done for us here is link in no uncertain terms the idea that being a “slave to sin” is the same as being devoted to worldliness in the worst possible way, the way that we hopefully rejected in the last chapter.

In Celano’s link we also see the continuity of Jesus’ teaching in these two chapters.  Jesus tells us in chapter 7 that the world hates Him, clearly a sinful action.  And then in chapter 8, as He continues the teaching, the link between “worldliness” and sinfulness is expounded upon and established even more definitively by the use of phrases like “slave to sin” and “children of the devil.”

Again, we can take comfort in the fact that Francis begins as one of us.  Just as the Jews in this chapter, just as me in my current circumstance (and you in yours?), Francis starts as a “slave to sin.”  Our comfort comes from the knowledge that if we can successfully embrace the example of Francis, we have a chance to be set free and leave that status behind. 

In Celano’s text, the words “slaves of sin” are in italics, which indicates that they are taken directly from scripture.  The reference is to Romans 6:20 but it could just as easily have been to our verses from Chapter 8 of the gospel of John. 

One can imagine that Francis read chapter 6 of Romans early in his conversion process and took inspiration from it.  We can do the same, because it holds out the possibility of a happy ending.  Here are verses 20-22.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.  What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?  Those things result in death!  But now you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.

Francis managed to fulfill these words from Romans.  He rejected the world as presented to him in his youth and in so doing also rejected being a slave to sin.  That rejection of the world, to use Paul’s words, set him free from sin and placed him on the path to holiness, sainthood and eternal life.

In other words, he obtained “purity of heart” and he gives us hope that we can do the same and thereby fulfill what the beginning of this article of the Rule is asking us to strive for.

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But how did he do it?  What action did Francis take to set himself free?

Recall again the end of the reflection on the last chapter, in particular the actionable steps on leaving the “world” that Francis modeled.

  • Wholeheartedly embrace penance.
  • Desperately long for conversion.
  • Mindfully live Poverty by leaving “the world” and all yearning for power and possession behind.
  • Tightly cling to Jesus.
  • Faithfully serve God by discerning and doing His Will.

Concentrate for a moment on the third step and read this passage from chapter 6 of The Second Book of the Life of St. Francis by Celano:

Francis saw many (of his brothers) rushing for positions of authority.  Despising their arrogance, he strove by his own example to call them back from such sickness……He held it was appropriate for some to take care of souls as long as in this they sought nothing of their own will, but in all things constantly obeyed God’s will……He maintained it was dangerous to direct others and better to be directed, especially in these times when malice is growing so much and wickedness is increasing……That is why he grieved over those who now sank to the level of what was low and cheap, although once they had striven for higher things with all their desire.  They had abandoned true joy and were running here and there, wandering through the field of an empty freedom.

In this passage we can directly equate the “worldly” behavior of “rushing to authority,” the clear equivalent of desiring worldly power and possessions, to times when sinful malice and wickedness are growing.  Again, the words are just as current today as they were then.  The behavior that Francis clearly viewed as sinful then we will hopefully condemn as sinful now. 

As Jesus indicates in the verses, that sinfulness makes one a slave.  That slavery then blinds one to his or her actual condition.  We think we are free when in fact we are anything but.  Our freedom becomes “empty” just as Celano describes the loss of freedom by the brothers who succumbed to this sin in Francis’ time.

Francis rejected this yearning for power and possession by embracing Poverty.  It was Poverty that allowed him to obtain purity of heart and thus the type of true freedom that Jesus is talking about in the quoted verses from chapter 8.

This next passage must be read slowly.  It comes from The Versified Life of St. Francis by Henri d’Avranches. 

Strive we must therefore to give mastery to our better self and bring our worse self to heel, and compel, not the spirit to serve the flesh, but the flesh to render service to the spirit.

The body has five attendants, and in their desires, reason, most loyal partner of the soul, hardly shows interest. It is hers to raise our downcast consciousness, not to pamper the taste of the senses, but drawn along is the body by the rope of poverty.

Once it loses its turgid fleshiness and adopts the soul’s vigorous gait: Once it sets its course on interests celestial and is not bound for things of the earth. For there is a freedom in poverty that makes her the seat of frugality: She is the untroubled rest where virtues lie.  She does not sink under weighty worries, nor fear the hand of the thief, nor does she hunt for vanities.

Take your time and read it again.  It’s not easy to get the first time through.  Make sure you understand the definition of Poverty here, how it is known by the rejection of the body in favor of the spirit and by a turning to “interests celestial” as opposed to “things bound to the earth.” 

Think about the modern understanding of reason.  Would most people today accept reason as the “most loyal partner of the soul?”  If so, would they also accept the notion that reason’s function is to “raise our downcast consciousness” from a pampered emphasis on sensual “worldly” matters to a pure and free desire for the graces of a heavenly focus?  Do we currently accept that the aim of reason is to turn the body away from “turgid fleshiness” in order to liberate it so it can adopt the soul’s vigorous but so often thwarted desire to pursue spiritual concerns?

Poverty does involve a rejection of the vanity of the material world, a rejection of the pursuit of power and possessions.  But that rejection is not enough.  It must be paired with an unfettered positive embrace of things celestial and a resolute yearning for heavenly virtue and the freedom that citizenship in the Kingdom of God brings.

We are ultimately called to embrace the “freedom of poverty,” thereby obtaining the full measure of joy that a mature and focused relationship with Jesus and God can bring us.  

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Read the selected verses from Chapter 8 again. Read the list from the last chapter again. Note the call to “tightly cling to Jesus” in the fourth step, and then read again the words “If you hold to my teaching.”  Is the correlation obvious? 

Jesus in these verses has given us Himself as the starting point.  He has given us Himself as the Truth.  And He has promised that the Truth will set us free! He will set us free!

Read then the final and fifth step above.  Read again the passage about Francis and his brothers and note the correlation there. 

Francis wanted his brothers to embrace not their own will but the Will of God.  He preached Poverty to them because this is also an essence of Poverty.  When we reject our will and embrace God’s Will we have also set ourselves free.  Read the passage from Romans again and find that statement confirmed in the words “slaves to God.”

The final question is, set free for what purpose?

Go back to the Rule and read the last question to get the answer.

We must be free because without freedom we cannot love!  The purpose of Creation is the expansion of Love, but Love is only expanded when we choose to love God and our brothers and sisters in an atmosphere of true and complete freedom!

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Let me say it again for emphasis.

The purpose of Creation is the expansion of Love.

This article of the Rule is easy to overlook.  Its meaning does not jump out and in some way it feels like a platitude.  It’s nice to read and easy to agree to but on the surface it’s not that directly inspiring.

I implore you not to take it lightly.

We are made free for a very specific, very compelling reason.  Recognize that employing true freedom to radically love God and your brothers and sisters is the very essence of fulfilling the Will of God and become determined to learn, from the example of Francis, how to do it consistently and well through the grace of Holy Poverty.

If you believe Celano, you easily reach the conclusion that the gift and grace of freedom was abused in the time of Francis.  If you look at the “world” around us today, despite the freedom that we Americans were blessed with by our founders, you reach that same conclusion.  Freedom today is often used not to love God and neighbor, but for purposes of consumption and indulgence and self-aggrandizement that lead many to become slaves to sin.

As Franciscans, we are called to a better path.

  • Wholeheartedly embrace penance.
  • Desperately long for conversion.
  • Mindfully live Poverty by leaving “the world” and all yearning for power and possession behind.
  • Tightly cling to Jesus.
  • Faithfully serve God by discerning and doing His Will.

And then, based on John Chapter 8, you can add this:

Accept Jesus as the Truth that sets you free and then love God and neighbor with all your heart and all your soul, for that is the ultimate fulfillment of His Will, the ultimate revolutionary act for a “world” that so desperately a revolution.

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