Freedom…it is something that we Americans take for granted. Our familiarity with and our love for freedom sometimes makes it difficult to make the point that Christ came to set us free. Most of us don’t understand what it might be like to be in prison. So breaking out of prison is not an issue. But I want to share a parable with you; it is called “The Parable of the Locksmith”[i]
Once upon a time, there were some slaves in prison. They had been slaves for so long that they had forgotten they were slaves in prison. In fact, they had decided that they were free and that the walls surrounding them actually imprisoned all the people on the outside. The prisoners often heard cries of pain from the other side of the wall. Once some of the prisoners escaped, but they came back. They talked about wandering in the wilderness for forty years, of having to fight for their homes, of the problems of government, of the cruelties of war, and of the ongoing anxieties outside. They came back to the prison because it was calmer there; it was safe and unchanging; it was less threatening. Life was easier in here, they believed, and since prison is supposed to make life harder, they were convinced that they must not be the ones in prison. “They are the prisoners! Not us!”
One day, a young locksmith came in over the wall. He told the prisoners they really were slaves and locked in a prison. Then he broke the locks on the prison door and pushed it open. The cries of need and pain from the outside were no longer muffled; they just got louder and louder. Then that young locksmith had the audacity to tell them they were free and that they should live outside the prison. “Go out into the whole world!” he told them. Some of the prisoners believed him, but most said he was just a trouble-maker. It was obvious to them that happiness was right where they were. They decided the locksmith was a menace and that he needed to be silenced for the good of the community. There was a quick trial where he was accused of upsetting people and stirring up trouble. Of course, the locksmith was found guilty and executed; and that was the end of that. Ah, but the locksmith’s followers, who had been afraid and silent during the trial, began to spread the locksmith’s message of freedom. Many of them were killed too, but the rest kept working. Every now and then some folks believed the locksmith’s message. They accepted the fact that they were in slavery. They recognized they were really in prison. They went out the unlocked door to freedom and found the world of pain, need, and service. Plenty of the inmates stayed behind and kept dreaming that they were really the ones who were free. They never even looked out the door for fear they might see someone in need, someone in trouble, or some problem that needed solving. They didn’t want to see any of that. They plugged their ears to muffle the cries for help; they didn’t want to hear any of that. They continued to believe that it was really the people on the other side of the wall who were in prison – not them. They just didn’t understand why the locksmith broke the lock on the door in the first place.
Maybe this is a parable we don’t want to hear. It reminds us that today, all around us, people are still in prison and often don’t know it. People are still slaves to selfishness and pride, still imprisoned by hatred and jealousy, still bound by complacency and apathy and closed-mindedness. People still misunderstand the meaning of freedom, salvation, and deliverance. Too many haven’t figured out that Jesus Christ is the Locksmith.
We find Bethlehem when we find the locksmith who breaks the lock and throws open the prison door. He sends US out into the world of pain, and need, and service. He calls us to be not simply human but humane. He doesn’t just save us from something – he saves us for something. He gives his life for us so that we might give our lives for others. We are set free to be servants.
Look back at Paul’s letter again: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love.” Do we get that? Jesus set us free, but that does not mean we are free to do whatever we want…It means we are free to be who God wants us to be and we are free to fulfill God’s call on our lives and we are free to love God with all that we are and love one another as we love ourselves. We are freed from the prisons that bind us as flawed human beings. We are free to be better than we are and better than we could ever be on our own.
Isaiah said the Messiah will “startle many nations” (52:15). When we read the Bible we see that Jesus did stir up a lot of trouble; he disturbed Pilate, Herod, the religious leaders, and even his own disciples. Jesus may have been the Christ who comforts broken hearts, but he is also the One who disturbs complacent people and exposes hypocrisy, self-centeredness, and superficiality. Christ is seen in this parable today as one who disturbs us, startles us, shakes us out of our prisons, and sends us out into the world to be servants. But wait, we’re already free – right? We’re not in prison! Well now, let’s think about some of the prisons that actually threaten us. We may not be as free as we think we are.
Jesus frees us from the Prison of Selfishness…
Selfishness is an insidious prison. We usually don’t notice it as it takes over our lives and by the time it becomes our prison, we may be totally unaware of the walls it has built. Selfishness is simply not in keeping with a faith that stands on the selflessness of Jesus Christ. In Matthew 16, Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is not a selfish Jesus.
St. Francis offers us a prayer that expresses what it means to be set free from selfishness and committed to whatever God has in mind for us:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
Jesus frees us from the Prison of Hate…
“Hate” is such an ugly word. We taught our kids never to use that word because it reflects an emotion that is simply evil and out of character for a true Christian. We need to understand that hatred is not only hurtful to others; it can also destroy our souls. There is an ancient Greek legend about two athletes who were close friends; they were like brothers. One the athletes began to excel and receive more recognition; it got to the point where the town built a statue to honor their number-one competitor. The other man grew jealous and filled with hate for his long-time friend. He went every night to try to destroy the statue. Finally he succeeded – he was able to topple the heavy statue off its pedestal, but it fell on him and killed him – he was crushed by his own hatred. You see, that’s how hate works – it turns on us. Hate always comes back to haunt us and it is destructive to our spirit. That is why Jesus preached love – love your enemies; love those who hurt you; love.
Jesus frees us from the Prison of Indifference…
When we see Jesus’ life we realize how concerned God is, how much God cares, and how deeply God loves. Jesus sends us out into the world to care and love in the same way that God does. We are so busy every day and there is so much going on around us that it is easy for us to stop seeing. What I mean is that we get to the point where we just don’t notice anymore and we become indifferent to the need and the pain and the suffering around us. There isn’t any room in our schedule to stop and help somebody we don’t know. It just doesn’t occur to us to keep a supply of McDonald’s Gift Cards handy for someone who’s hungry. It’s not that we don’t care – deep down – it’s just we have become so indifferent that we don’t remember. Maybe we have come to believe that somebody else will take care of that person or that problem. Or maybe we just can’t bring ourselves to care about that person’s need because we don’t approve of their lifestyle or their appearance. There are lots of excuses for becoming indifferent to the needs of others…they are only excuses, not reasons.
When Christ frees us from the prison of indifference we realize that it is our responsibility to care about what happens to other people – whether we approve of them or not; whether we know them or not; whether we agree with them or not.
Selfishness, hatred, and indifference are only three of the countless prisons that threaten to enslave us. If you think about it I am certain you will find other prisons that are just as threatening. What is important for us to know is that we find Bethlehem when we realize that Christ came to break the locks on those prisons of selfishness, and hate, and indifference…He came to break the locks on pride, and greed, and lust. Jesus came to set us free from all the prisons that cage us in, but we must decide to walk out the door.
Let us pray: God of life and hope, we thank you for the gift of freedom in Jesus Christ. Help us to claim it every day so that others may find Bethlehem and realize they are also free from the prisons of their lives. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN
[i] Moore, James W. Finding Bethlehem in the Midst of Bedlam, Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press, 2013. Page 41