Moral theologians always have insisted that only our free actions truly can be judged to be morally right or morally wrong. Anything impeding our freedom, such as force or fear, reduces the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

Except for one small adjustment, this remains a mainstream Christian principle. The modification is that modern moral theologians, equipped with the findings of modern psychology, have come to understand that we approach few of our daily actions with complete freedom.

We now regard force and fear as more than just material and external elements. They can come from within our psychic selves. And they affect not only our evil acts, but also our good acts. As much as we hate to admit it, a good act, not freely carried out, is not a completely good act.

Seeking fulness

The Wisdom author perfectly describes our human condition (Wis 9:13-18). "The deliberations of mortals are timid," he writes, "and unsure are our plans. For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns."

Though we spend our lives searching for and carrying out God's will, we find it impossible to break through our humanity decisively enough to completely and freely become God's perfect disciples.

Yet, as we hear in Sunday's Gospel (Lk 14:25-33), Jesus constantly encourages His followers to keep going in the right direction. Notice how He treats the issue of our being truly prepared and determined to follow Him. He gives examples of a person not having enough money to finish a building project and a king not having enough soldiers to win victory.

But He sandwiches those stories between commands to His disciples to turn their backs on parents, family members and their very selves, and to renounce all possessions. There can only be one reason for such commands: In each case, the person (even one's own self!) Or possession is exerting a force or fear on the individual, stopping him or her from completely giving themselves to Jesus. Part of our conspiring to be His follower revolves around our determination to be completely free in that following.

Nowhere in Scripture do we have a better example of freedom of action than in the one-chapter Letter of Paul to Philemon. Yet because even this extremely brief writing is cut down even further to fit into our liturgical space (Phil 9-10, 12-17), we easily could miss its message. (I encourage presiders, lectors and homilists to bring their Bibles along and proclaim the entire letter to the community. It takes the homilist longer to explain what's been left out than to read the few extra verses. Besides, it's great to be able to say that at least once every three years, we've heard an entire letter of Paul.)

Becoming free

Philemon, a convert and disciple of Paul, is a Christian slave owner. One of his slaves, Onesimus, has escaped and found his way to Paul, begging to be baptized and join the Apostle in his missionary work. Paul's willing to accept Onesimus as a co-worker. There's just one problem: freedom. Onesimus, as a runaway slave, isn't free to make such a decision until Philemon renounces his ownership of him.

Paul, as a follower of Jesus, knows such a renunciation must be freely given, or it merits Philemon nothing. So he writes a letter asking Philemon to free Onesimus. And just to make certain Philemon doesn't feel unduly pressured to grant Paul's request, he send the letter via Onesimus!

Scripture scholars constantly remind us that we must put ourselves in the original context of a sacred work in order to more accurately understand the impact the writing had for its first audience. In this case, that means we have to imagine ourselves having just opened our front door and discover standing in front of us an individual over whom we exercise complete control, an individual who not only had escaped from our power but also had destroyed some of our property in the process. We read the letter he hands us with one eye on the words and one eye on him. What a context!

Even in the midst of such cultural and psychological restraints, Paul expects both Onesimus and Philemon to act as freely as they can. All followers of Jesus are called to do the same -- even we who live in the midst of our cultural and psychological restraints.

(09-03-98)