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08/28/2009
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Freedom and truth
By Scott McKellar
Key Scripture Columnist

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This coming year the 2010 Winter Olympics will be hosted in Vancouver, Canada. The Nordic events will be located in scenic Whistler Village, a two hour drive north into the coastal mountains. For me, the Sea-to-Sky highway linking Vancouver and Whistler following the coast of Howe Sound is the perfect illustration of how our human freedom works. The highway climbs from sea level to over 2100 feet and winds endlessly along the coastline along sheer cliffs dropping to the ocean below.

During the 1960’s my own generation defined freedom as the ability to do whatever each person wanted without interference from others. Imagine if I took this approach and drove around the corners of this highway, not slowing to stay in my own lane but allowing my car to drift into the lane of oncoming traffic. If no one is coming from the other direction, this allows me to maneuver the corners at a faster speed, but if a large truck or tour bus appears suddenly around the corner, I meet with disaster. Is it genuine freedom to drive so fast that I am having trouble staying away from the barriers which keep my vehicle from tumbling over the brink? Are these barriers an unnecessary restriction on my freedom? As John Paul II noted, “God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather it protects and promotes that freedom” (Veritatis Splendor 35).

This Sunday’s Gospel deals with the relationship between freedom and tradition. Jesus is confronted by some Pharisees and Scribes about the tradition of a ceremonial washing of the hands before eating. This was not a question of common sense hygiene, but a ceremonial act which was not specifically required by Sacred Scripture. This ritual washing was required by some pious, educated Jews because of the oral “traditions of the elders.” At first glance Jesus appears to have a totally negative view of tradition, but this is to misunderstand the passage. Jesus condemns the illegitimate or false use of human tradition. The very nature of discipleship in the ancient world involved the imitation of the life of the master or Rabbi as an embodiment of Torah. The disciple was required to imitate the “halachah” or walk of the Rabbi. The “walk” of a Rabbi demonstrated the application of the Law to life.

In John’s Gospel, which we have been reading in the past few weeks, Jesus portrays himself as the perfect disciple of the Father (John 5:19, 21, 26). Jesus points out that as the Father does or says . . . so the Son does or says. Jesus then commissions his own disciples to imitate his life, “(Jesus) said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit’” (John 20:21-22). Jesus’ disciples followed his example or “walk” by imitating his life. Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). To the Philippians he writes; “Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us” (Philippians 3:17).

This Spirit-filled discipleship was viewed as a tradition in a positive sense. Paul writes, “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (1 Thessalonians 2:15). Later to the same Church he writes, “We instruct you, brothers, in the name of (our) Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). Second Vatican Council was later to remind us, “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God.” (Dei Verbum 10)

This Sunday’s gospel account condemns not the false freedom of license, but false restrictions imposed by human religious scruples. Human religious traditions can arise quickly and become annoyingly rule-bound and apparently immune to further reflection. The way we did it last week becomes the “tradition” for our community and anyone who thinks differently must be wrong. At times these human traditions can become an unjustified restriction on our legitimate freedom or even be something which contradicts the deposit of faith or the legitimate leadership of the Magisterium. As Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us, true freedom is not the insatiable quest for novelty but, “In the light of truth, authentic freedom is experienced as a definitive response to God’s ‘yes’ to humanity, calling us to choose, not indiscriminately but deliberately, all that is good, true and beautiful” (May 20, 2007). Genuine freedom is not a reckless joy-ride on a mountain highway, but a search for authentic happiness rooted in the light of the mystery of the incarnate Word (GS 22). With Our Lady let us celebrate our true freedom in Christ, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free” (Gospel Canticle, LOTH).

Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.

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