John 8: 31-36
31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
One line of this passage has become the most abused and misunderstood line of all of scripture. It is the line that goes: “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The way it is used it is never a complete sentence. It has been ripped unceremoniously from its rightful place in John’s Gospel. James Garfield once said “the truth will make you free,
but first it will make you miserable”. Pop psychology tells people if they only know the truth about themselves they can be free from their mental distress. Of course in today’s pre-election climate there seems to be no end of people who think they have the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth. Maybe it would be helpful to remind ourselves of its original context: …Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Jesus was trying to help them understand how they were in bondage to the law of Moses. The Judeans who had been attracted to Jesus’ and had, at least at one time chosen to follow him didn’t understand his proclamation of freedom. I’m not so sure that we do either. Somehow those Judeans sincerely believed themselves, as children of Abraham, to have always been free and did not need the freedom offered by Jesus. They desperately wanted to believe that they were never slaves to anyone. I can’t quite figure out what they did with the story of Joseph in Potifer’s house or what they thought Passover was all about. But somehow they were able to deny to themselves the years of Babylonian exile and to top things off weren’t they living in a garrisoned Roman state. As Jews they couldn’t imagine that they needed to be set free. I think that many Americans would have a similar reply to the need to be set free: “We are already free! We live in the land of the free and home of the brave.”
We humans have a fascinating ability to redefine what is true for us. Recently I was thinking about just where the notion of truth came from, in its most basic form. With urbanization we developed a new craft of workers, plumbers. Their very name comes from using a plumb line to determine a true vertical so their drainage systems would work properly. True, in our mechanical minds has come to mean straight. But think about God’s creation. There are no straight lines there. No true vertical or horizontals. We think in a rectangle, God created in the round. We do the same thing with our theories of how things work and how they ought to work and we boil it down to rules for living. We took God’s gift of ten and have libraries of codifications. That’s what the Judeans were about when Jesus told them that they were in bondage – in bondage to sin as defined by the Mosaic Law.
This became for the early church a point of great dispute among the earliest Christians. Major tensions within the original community of the followers of Jesus led to the first Council of Jerusalem, which took place around 50 AD. The debate was whether gentiles who joined the faith had first to be circumcised and become Jews or instead were exempt for the Law of Moses. Paul had come to acknowledge that the grace of Christ had released the gentiles from the rules of the Mosaic law. In Turkey a dispute arose over the appropriateness of Jews and pagans eating at the same table. Peter had shared the table with either group, until guests arrives and James began avoiding the table of non-Jews. Human constructions of what is right and proper, what fulfills the dietary code, what to dress, where and how far to go all become for people more important that relationships. We’ve been about changing the content of words, at times literally ripping out of their original context to be able to use them to defend our point of view.
In looking at this parable Augustine couldn’t get over the power of the phrase “If you continue in my word…” The Apostle Paul said something similar when he employed the Greek word ‘meno’ – ‘I remain.’ Freedom in this verse is dependent upon remaining in a life giving relationship, and that relationship was with Jesus’ word. “If you continue in my word…”. How John tells the story, Jesus was speaking with people who for some reason had broken their relationship with him. And do you recall how John used the word ‘word’. He started his Gospel with it when he wrote “In the beginning was the Word” and that word was Jesus. Chrysostom focused on how the truth was Jesus and how that it was in that relationship Christ frees us from our bondage to sin. It is a trading of our bondage to self will and self indulgence for a new master. Augustine said that the meaning was plainer in the Greek than in the Latin for in Latin the word free is used chiefly to mean escaping from a danger or finding relief from care. To be free, he said, is to be made free as to be healed is to be made whole.
When John speaks of truth, he is always referring to Jesus. Remember, in John 14 where he has Jesus saying: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. Knowing the truth makes you free – but the truth isn’t a plumb line nor a logical syllogism, it is a person, the person of Jesus Christ.
My grandfather’s grandparents had a plantation in what is now Franklin County Arkansas. I grew up being told that under reconstruction things were so bad that recently emancipated slaves begged to come back to the farm. There was no work for them to do. There was no money to pay them. There was no way to feed them. They were turned away. For many who were able to work for those who had previously owned them their conditions deteriorated because, now working for wages, they became debtors. Technically they were free. Legally they were free but their conditions remained unchanged.
In a really great movie the actor’s line to his leading lady is “I’ve never lied to you. I’ve always told you some version of the truth”. In a T.V. commercial the narrator promises the listener financial independence. I wonder how many people who invested their life’s savings with the likes of a Berney Matoff consider themselves financially independent today. On a sit-com the teenage daughter enters an adult conversation about illegal drugs. She said: “This is a free country. I can do anything I want”.
Freedom is a dangerous illusion. It holds out the promise of autonomy, personal sovereignty and independence. It is what the snake offered Eve in the Garden of Eden. When it is pursued by an individual or a nation the consequences are the loss of innocence and what Martin Luther called Sin. If we follow Luther and understand “sin” as self-centeredness, then those who are doing self-centered things are slaves to themselves — their own wants and desires. Often this is how people understand freedom — doing whatever I want to do. But that definition of freedom is actually slavery to one’s self. Being set free means having our desires and centeredness turned away from ourselves.
Jesus parable concludes in a very interesting way. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. In the household of faith, the Son has been given the prerogative to offer the run of the house to a slave – but it is only in the house, in a continuing relationship with the son that the slave knows freedom. The picture that comes to my mind is the son of the hired man and the son of the land owner playing together. Our freedom is not about some license to do what ever we want to do. Our freedom conforms to Christ and so is authentic love and care for others of the household, our brother and sisters – especially the most needy. The kingdom of God is about justice and peace and the lesson for us is that we let ourselves continue in the freedom of Christ’s word, being always guided by Christ’s spirit. Only as servants in the household of faith can we lay claim to any form of freedom. Free at last, Free at last – yes, free to serve.