“Therefore choose life” (Deut. 30:19).
“In his great love, God was unwilling to restrict our freedom, even though he had the power to do so. He has left us to come to him by the love of our heart alone.” These words of the Syrian Christian mystic Isaac of Ninevah sum up an important theme linking together these lessons.
All of them invite a decision. Moses sets two ways before the people: following the commandments of God and finding life, or serving other gods and inheriting death. Paul urges Philemon to receive back his former slave Onesimus “as a beloved brother.” But he will not command the master’s obedience, “in order that [his] goodness might not be by compulsion but of [his] own free will.” Jesus invites his disciples to consider the hard road of complete dedication to God. They must choose carefully, though, sitting down to “count the cost.”
The human capacity for free choice is a gift that comes as part of being created in the Divine Image. Our virtues and our destinies are formed by the decisions we make, and acting without unnecessary coercion is basic to human dignity.
But in these passages, a free decision is more important because of the gravity of the choices than these deeper claims about human nature. God is calling his people to choices that require the total redirection of their lives.
Moses calls them to walk continually in God’s ways, to commit themselves to God alone instead of the idols that claim to rule Canaan’s people. Jesus warns his followers to weigh their options carefully, to understand that faithfulness may lead to broken relationships and poverty. This commitment will cost them everything, and they must be sure that they can bear the demands.
A spur-of-the-moment choice or one made under pressure or in the heat of emotional fervor simply will not do. Such ultimate decisions must be made calmly and carefully, because they must be made day after day, in the face of different kinds of challenges. Unfortunately, those who talk so often of “a personal decision for Christ” sometimes seem to forget the scriptural vision of continual conversion. The choice is for the way of discipleship, a lifetime path of following Jesus, giving God the first place in our hearts. God loves us enough to allow us to choose, but he expects a complete choice from us. True discipleship demands all we have.
Look It Up
Is the human freedom described by these texts the same as the freedom St. Paul describes in Galatians 5?
Think About It
St. Paul is sometimes criticized for not having condemned slavery outright in his letter to Philemon. Might his exhortation for Philemon to receive Onesimus “as a brother” be even more radical?