Sunday's readings remind me of a situation I encountered years ago teaching junior boys in a Catholic high school.

When I brought up the topic of actually choosing the faith we profess, the boys pointed out that they had no say in their becoming and remaining Catholic. Their parents had them baptized as infants, sent them to Catholic grade and high school, and insisted they do what their religion demanded.

They not only resented their lack of freedom in the process, they made it crystal clear that, if they had their druthers, they certainly wouldn't have signed up for my religion course.

The authors of Sunday's three Scripture passages can't imagine such a situation. They're convinced that faith isn't really faith unless it's freely chosen.

Freely chosen

Our Wisdom writer sets the biblical table be reminding us that faith alone takes us beyond our human limits (Wis 9: 13-18). "Who can know God's counsel," he asks, "or who can conceive what Yahweh intends? For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans." Unless we freely choose to step beyond "our grasp" into the realm of faith, we'll never discover the "things [that] are in heaven."

Hearing Jesus' demands in the Gospel (Lk 14: 25-33), we realize no one can be forced to become His disciple. He calls us to "'hate' father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even [our] own life,...to carry [our] cross and come after Him...and to renounce all [our] possessions."

It's no accident that, after issuing such a call, Jesus immediately talks about the necessity of planning and plotting for the future. The decision to follow Him doesn't come naturally.

This Sunday, I encourage lectors to put their lectionaries away, pull out their large-print Bibles and proclaim every word of Paul's letter to Philemon (Phil 9-10, 12-17). It's only 25 verses. The homilist will probably take longer to create the historical context for the eight liturgical verses than for the community to hear the other 17 verses that automatically provide that context.

Philemon, Paul's convert and friend, is a rich slave-owner. Onesimus, one of Philemon's slaves, has escaped from his estate (after trashing some of his property) and fled to Paul, offering to become his servant. Paul welcomes his proposal. But there's a problem: Philemon hasn't voluntarily granted On-esimus his freedom.

No force

So Paul sends a letter to his old friend, requesting he now make Onesimus a free man. "I did not want to do anything without your consent," he writes, "so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary."

But Paul doesn't stop there. Because he believes a forced action - no matter how good and praiseworthy - is worthless, he demands even more freedom from Onesimus than from Philemon. He doesn't hire a special messenger to deliver his letter. He sends it with Onesimus!

Not only does Paul expect Philemon freely to release Onesimus, he also expects Onesimus freely to put himself back into Philemon's power and only then request his freedom.

Psychologists often remind us of the obvious: Very few of our daily actions are freely performed. Even many of the good things we do are carried out only because we're afraid to do something bad. We perform them out of force and fear.

At the same time, moral theologians remind us that God judges us only on our free actions. Nothing we've been forced to do will count when God hands us our eternal zip code.

God expects us to integrate as much freedom into our daily lives as possible. Our free choices not only determine how we live our Christian faith, but also make high school religion classes much more enjoyable.

(9/2/04)