All About Freedom – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Matthew 5:17:37, Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Imagine a former slave of Pharaoh saying: “We’ve recently been freed from eight generations of slave life, thanks to Moses and his awesome God! Before them, we had no idea what freedom felt like. Well, now we’re free! No more slave drivers, whips, or clubs. We have a Law now, too. But it’s very, very different from what we were used to. From now on, for example, we are to love and worship only Moses’ God who was clearly behind our rescue. The Egyptian gods we worshipped? They were useless! To think we prayed to them every day, even made images of them. Our slave drivers always used their names curse us! Oh, and now, our parents are safe, too. You should have seen how our masters beat and abused our parents. And nobody gets to die by anyone’s hand now. In Egypt, they flogged us to death for the slightest errors. And from now on, nobody gets to grab our wives and our daughters from us, or steal the little that we have, or blame and frame us for crimes the soldiers committed. And we get to stop working at least one day a week…and still live!”

That was the original context of the Ten Commandments, sisters and brothers. It was like God saying, “Now that you’re free, my dear children, we shall never allow any of the indignities you suffered as slaves in Egypt to happen again, ever.” God’s Law, therefore, was all about relief, dignity, joy, and freedom—especially interior freedom: makes for better sleep at night knowing that the next day, you won’t get cursed anymore, or killed, stolen from, or falsely accused, or see amma and abba beaten up, or your wife or daughter molested. God’s law saved them from all that now. And by “saved,” we mean freed from unjust burden, and freed for fullness of life. The Ten Commandments was all about people and all about freedom.

As the eras wore on, life became more and more complex. Now, in Jesus’ day, the Israelites had a full-on religion and a Temple. They owned property now, worked for wages, paid wages, married and divorced, borrowed money, loaned money, etc. So, they needed subsidiary laws that assured strict compliance to the basic Ten. For “keep the Sabbath holy,” for instance, they now had to stipulate how many steps you may walk to your donkey to feed it, in excess of which it was already “work,” so, bawal. Carrying stuff out of your house was considered work. Bawal na rin. Tying and untying, sewing and tearing? Bawal. For “you shall not commit adultery/covet neighbor’s wife,” the rules now stipulated whom one’s servant may or may not marry. And provisions had to be made for “proper” divorce that would not count as adultery. Now, husband could kick wife out and not be called adulterous for whatever reason: like wife didn’t cook eggs properly, or wife’s face became tiresome, or she talked to neighbors too much—so long as husband wrote the bill of divorce and delivered it correctly. The grounds I just mentioned, by the way, were viable grounds for divorce back then, imagine? Wives, however, were forbidden to divorce husbands.

Now you’re starting to get it, right? Nothing wrong with the Ten Commandments which were a loving, freeing Law. But now, with 613 subsidiary rules called, mishpatim, including rules about handwashing, hairdo, menstruation and childbirth, what you may/may not touch, words you may not utter either because they were dirty (like chazir, pig) or because they were too holy (like Yahweh), etc. Now, obeying God’s rules never felt so burdensome!

Do you know the overall Hebrew word for Jewish Law? Halakhah! (Hala ka!) Rabbis, Pharisees, Sadducees knew by heart every halakhah, did it, kept it, and proud of it. But this was what the Ten Commandments had come down to: minutiae. This was what the image of God had come down to: from a God who said, “No more of these indignities of slavery ever again,” to a God who said, “Hala ka!”

But Jesus saw through the fastidious religious authorities. May forbidden words nga sila, but they were notorious for denigrating people, and calling them “fools.” They burned sin sacrifices nga at the Temple. But they also burned with contempt and hatred. Masters of washing and purification nga. But Jesus must have caught their lustful eyes as they gawked at women. He was on to them. He couldn’t be fooled. “If your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees,” he finally said, “you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

Jesus didn’t go around violating rules, sisters and brothers, even if seemed he did. Rather, he was bringing back their original intent: freedom from unjust burden, and freedom for fullness of life. “I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them.” So, the most important consideration in fulfilling God’s Law was people; their freedom, joy, and salvation. Divine love and compassion for people was therefore the spirit behind every word of the Law. But as it happened, the authorities made God’s Law burdensome, enslaving, rigid, and cold.

You know, dear sisters and brothers, just my opinion: any rule in our Church today must fulfill the foundational spirit behind the Ten Commandments. Hence, our Church laws must never be discriminatory, misogynistic, homophobic, chauvinistic, clericalist, and anti-poor. Whatever enslaves is not of God. Proof? Jesus spent every day of ministry freeing people from whatever burdened them, even at the risk of appearing that he was mocking the Law, and thus, jeering at God!

Up until I was in Grade 4, we had an unspoken law, care of dad. Be pers onor (first honor) in school. Anything less than pers onor is not “honor.” After every quarter, we were to write the raw scores of our periodical tests on our assignment notebook for mom and dad to see and sign off on. Well, there was one quarter when by the looks of them, our scores weren’t going to be enough for pers onor that quarter. The night when we were to show our assignment notebook to dad, we were really scared. Dad came home. Masungit, as usual; seemed to always have a bad day at work. As he was peeling his socks off, kuya & I looked at each other, assignment notebooks in hand, petrified. We walked over to dad and turned them in. Well, the next thing we saw was our notebooks flying across the sala and landing face down under the tv. ‘Di ba may legs ‘yung tv noon? D’un! Sa ilalim ng Zenith namin dumapa ang assignment notebooks. Then, dad bellowed, “Wala na bang itataas ang mga grado na ‘yan?!?” He stormed out of there and stomped to the bedroom.

After a few minutes, dad called from upstairs: “Glenn, Arnel, pumanhik nga kayo rito.” I thought, “Crap. We’re getting the belt now.” We tiptoed into the room and saw Dad sitting on the bed, his head bowed. “Upo kayo rito;” he motioned in front of him. “Mga anak,” he said,“Magmula ngayon, hinding hindi na ako magagalit nang dahil lang sa mga grado ninyo.” The next thing I remember, kuya & I were in dad’s arms, my cheek against his neck. My face felt warmer and wetter as kuya and I sobbed…in enormous relief and gratitude untold.

Two lessons from long ago: first, any rule we impose on people dear to us must have love as the spirit behind the rule. Second, whoever makes and imposes a rule must do it in the spirit of sincere self-repentance and humility—not self-righteousness and power…pretty much, I guess, like God and his Divine Law.

That evening, dad actually imposed upon himself, a law. What he didn’t know was that he saved his sons and lovingly bestowed upon them such sweet, sweet freedom!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Sally Abelarde says:

    WOW!!! What a God: all giving, all forgiving, all freeing. He can’t lose any of us in our pettiness, to the enemy. We’re all sparks of the Divine, he has to gather every little bit to Hinself❤️
    Thank God for you Fr Arnel🙌


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