How free are you? It’s a serious question because bondage takes many forms. Chains, iron bars and cages can be invisible and just as ruinous to our freedom as the visible ones.
Jesus longed for us to be literally and spiritually free. Which is why he warned us against fake freedom and tried to instill in us a desire for the real thing. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 in Matthew’s Gospel, known as the Sermon on the Mount, are laced with wisdom about the ways in which we fall prey to bondage without realizing it.
Jesus helps us to become aware of the ways in which we unintentionally worship other people instead of God. He urges us to stop contorting our authentic selves to gain the approval of others and to recognize how essential devotion to God is to our personal freedom.
Hypocrite! Who, Me?
I’ll be focusing on some bits in chapter 6 about almsgiving, prayer and fasting because they are surprising relevant to the modern manifestations of fake freedom. But you might enjoy taking time to read all three chapters on your own. I guess you could say it’s a fifteen-minute read but it would be more honest to say it’s a read for a lifetime. It begins with the Beatitudes and includes some of the most recognized teachings of Jesus. Turn the other cheek, love your enemies, ask and you shall receive, and the Golden Rule are all in those few pages.
If you jump to chapter 6, you’ll see that Jesus calls religious people “hypocrites”. Not a great way to makes friends, but he was trying to make a point about the health of their souls and ours. Jewish piety involved almsgiving, prayer and fasting. We may not do a lot of fasting these days, unless it involves a juice cleanse, but praying and giving to charity are still part of the religious life. So what made those religious people hypocritical?
Jesus wasn’t calling them out for what they were doing but for why they were doing it. With charitable giving, Jesus said that it should be done quietly. “Do not sound a trumpet before you,” he said, to draw attention to yourself “so that you may be praised by others.” You probably will be applauded for your generosity, but in that case you will “have received your reward.” Same idea with prayer: pray quietly in private, not loudly on street corners so everyone can see how pious you are. In that case also, you will “have received your reward.”
I find the public display of piety funny because it’s so true. Don’t “disfigure your face”, Jesus says, meaning don’t grimace and sigh so everyone will see your suffering. I may not fast, but I certainly do grimace and sigh to get attention. In other words, I’m not above “fishing for compliments”. Again, Jesus says the attention you get that way will be your reward.
…when we find ourselves curating our image for social media likes or posturing for selfie perfection, we may be engaging in a contemporary form of false worship.
Who Will You Worship?
Today we call these public displays “virtual signaling”. Jesus called folks hypocrites because they weren’t really worshipping God, despite what they wanted everyone to think. They were really worshipping their audience. Which was a shocking accusation because these were the religious leaders that everyone admired and respected. To think that their worship was false because they were seeking the admiration and respect of the public was a strange thought indeed.
I want to be clear what Jesus is NOT saying: He’s not saying that it’s wrong to want admiration and respect. We all need to know we are loved and to have others tell us so. But Jesus is asking us to be aware that to gain some people’s respect we might have to remake ourselves into their image. For example, while there is nothing inherently wrong about sharing on social media, when we find ourselves curating our image for social media likes or posturing for selfie perfection, we may be engaging in a contemporary form of false worship.
Which begs the question, who do we worship? Or to put it another way, who fills our thoughts and motivates our desires? Is it God or is it others? Because when we devote ourselves to cultivating the love and respect of others, we bind ourselves to them. Our sense of self-worth becomes dependent on their assessment of our worthiness. We can easily lose the freedom to be our true selves if we are always guarded against the real risk of being mocked instead of praised, of being unfollowed instead of liked. Adoring crowds turn to angry mobs who can cancel us without remorse.
A few verses later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tell us that “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.” In other words, if we set our hearts and minds on becoming someone who is pleasing to others, it will consume us. We may feel free, but we will be bound to obey and conform to the expectations of others.
If Jesus could add a teaching or two to the Sermon on the Mount for our times, I don’t think he would tell us not to follow people or seek public approval. But I do think he’d ask us to choose who we follow wisely. He would want us to become aware of the invisible chains of servitude that we have taken on to see if we like the person we are becoming. He would want us to ask ourselves, in whose image are we being created?
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Freedom in God
False worship leads to fake freedom. Real freedom can only be acquired – no, it can only be received from someone who desires our freedom. That is why Jesus wants us to worship God because that is the bondage that leads to freedom to be fully ourselves. Even Jesus was not fully himself without tethering himself to God.
In John’s Gospel Jesus says, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (John 14:10) Here Jesus proclaims that it is not he but God who is speaking and acting in him. Yet I know of no one who was more free than Christ! The Jesus of the Gospels never succumbed to peer pressure, could have cared less about the admiration of the crowd, and never bowed to the demands of religious leaders.
We could say he was his own person, independent and free. But the paradox of his freedom is that Jesus was not his own person; he was God’s. The odd lesson of Jesus’ freedom is that it was the result of choosing to serve God with his entire being.
We began with the question, “How free are you?” Now we know that the answer depends on our answer to this question, “Who do you worship?” Or to put it in contemporary terms, “Who do you follow?” Freedom to be our authentic selves is found by following the One who loves us as we are and who is as devoted to us as we are to Him.