If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
The traditional understanding of man’s freedom is set out in today’s readings. Before man is life and death, what you seek is what you get.
There is a great scene in the first volume of the Lord of the Rings, both in the movie and in the book here, the former being quite faithful to the latter at this point. As the Fellowship is fleeing from goblins in the Mines of Moria, they come running down a stair. To one side is a deep chasm filled with fire. To the other side is a deep abyss of nothing crossed by one slender bridge. It is this route that leads to escape and this one that they must take. But they have a choice, if you will: for the goblins are even now building bridges across the fire. They can stand and face them to death. They can despair and fall into either the abyss or the chasm. No, the bridge it is and so they flee to safety (no spoilers).
It’s all rather like that in theology although the chasm and the fire might seem a bit more obscure, we’re asked always to pick. And the way forward, generally, is clearly marked: it’s the only way out, really. It’s when we think we have the freedom to pick anything (and we try to) that we stumble. We are, indeed, free. But there are only two choices: wrong and right. In fact there are rather a lot of the first and only one of the second. Chasm of Fire or Bottomless Abyss? Both lead to death – the only way out is that narrow bridge.
Man’s ontological freedom is only thus: I have sat before you life and death, whichever your choice, that you’ll get. Ben Sira does, however, say that if you make the right choice things will go better for you – and not for you, but for all men. The incoming tide raises all ships. Your actions for or against God, for or against self-will, all trigger that same energy in those around us: as we going. Together we are saved – or damned.
Together – that’s why Jesus’ opening out of the Torah is so important. God came to us to teach us not only the external “rules” but the internal application. Not to undo the Torah, but to help us outgrow it, to see the law “written on our hearts.” We know that Adultery is a breaking of the moral code, but the action starts long before anyone gets to the Super 8 out by the airport. You’re cheating on your wife looking at the “Casual Encounter” ads on Craigslist. Porn is adultery. Anyone who has ever shouted one name/slam/vulgarity in full anger at an opponent and felt the anger shoot out of them as they said it knows that to call someone a “fool” is to murder them. Jesus shows us how the laws of God are a way of connecting us one to another. It’s not enough just to act in a certain way… we must actually love each other.
Traditional theology speaks of the cooperation of Man and God in Man’s salvation. There is a fancy Greek word for it: Synergy. It is a dance we work out between us. God is in the lead and we are in the follow position – all of Creation is Femme to his Masculine. But we dance together. The choice to do so, since man is always free, is continual. The choice to dance is never irrevocable. When we are all swirling around the room you can still stop, or pick another partner, or break into some sexy, egotistical gyration that ties to take the spotlight from your partner. You can even twerk and make a real ass of yourself. The end result, however, is lonely and sad: a dance is a grace-filled joint creation between lovers and the music. The choice to leave the music behind, too, is never irrevocable. In fact, God’s rather like that internet creeper that keeps sending you emails. He looks at your online profile and hums that tune you both love so much, wondering when you’ll come back.
Stretch forth you hand. What is your choice?