Today’s first reading at Mass summarises, for me, quite clearly the esteem God has for our freedom. The text comes from the Old Testament book of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus.
“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.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands man’s every deed.
No one does he command to act unjustly,
to none does he give license to sin.”
While the text does not shy away from emphasising the consequences of (not) trusting in God, it does not claim that God demands that trust. God created man as a being with full freedom, including the freedom to choose his own path: “whichever he chooses shall be given him”. This freedom also influences how we should treat other people, especially people who have made different choices than we have. We can’t force anyone to adopt our choices.
But there is a catch: refraining from imposing our choices on others does not mean that all choices are equal or equally good for people. The passage from Sirach also reminds us that God is aware of us and knows what we need, what is best for us. He does not say that anyone is free to act unjustly or to sin. While anyone is free to be unjust or to sin, these choices are not by definition good ones. God’s wisdom and care for us should inform our process of deciding what to do.
As in many other occasions, God is like a parent to us. A good parent respects their child’s freedom, even encourages the development of their capacity to think and act for themselves. But at the same time a parent knows what is best for their child, and while their well-informed and carefully made choices must be respected, because they are the choices of free human beings, a parent will sometimes advise against them. In those cases, it is good to include our parents’ advice in our choosing.
It is no different with God. He knows us, understands why we do what we do, but His wisdom is also immense. It is good to listen to what he has to say to us about justice and sin, and take it seriously. After all, how free are we if we don’t have all the information we need?