The Freeing Word

There are fortunes to be made by leading people but there is little profit to be gained by liberating minds.

                                                  --Theodrose Fikre *

How does liberation come to a mind?

A word spoken with an authority that neither has nor needs any authorization beyond itself delivers it. That word, truly heard at last--for the very first time!--frees the mind from its chains. Indeed, it is by that very act of liberation that the freeing word authenticates itself absolutely.


When the student is ready, the teacher will appear a Buddhist tradition assures us. Just so will the freeing word be spoken to us, once we become truly ready to receive it.

Perhaps the reverse also holds: When the teacher is ready, the student will appear.

Is it not in just such mutual interaction between students and teachers that liberation always occurs?

For the good that I would I do not, writes Paul in Christian scripture, "but the evil which I would not, that I do" (Romans 7:19, NRSV). "O wretched man that I am!" he goes on to write plaintively five verses later, "who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"

Actually, Paul is writing those words some years after he experienced the answer to that very plea. He received that answer even before he knew he was praying for it. 

At least according to the most widely told tale, that answer was spoken to the man who came to be known as Paul when he was suddenly struck from his horse while he was on his way to Damascus. Up to that point, his name was not yet Paul. It was the name he was given at birth: the name of Saul, which had been given to him at his birth. He as known as Saul of Tarsus, the town where he had been born and raised.

Saul of Tarsus was going to Damascus to persecute the Christians there, just as the Jewish authorities of that day had authorized him to do.  It was on that journey that he was stuck from his horse, and thereby given the answer to the plea he would later formulate in the lines above from his letter to the Christians at Rome. 

Paul's pleading and the plea it contained, as he later captured it in his letter to the Romans, were among those very things that his experience back then on the road to Damascus had first freed him to hear and understand. The word he heard spoken to him then is what first freed him from himself--that is, from the very body of death incarnated in, and incarcerating, the man he had  been, Saul of Tarsus. At that moment, when he was struck off his horse on the road to Damascus, from that body of death named Saul a new, free man named Paul, the new man Saul was all along given to be, began to emerge. 

Paul, so freed at last to become himself, emerged from Saul, that body of death, in the same way a butterfly breaks forth, a new and beautiful free-flying creature, from the chrysalis that once contained the creature it had been up till then. From the coffin the earth-crawling caterpillar that the butterfly had theretofore been had woven around itself, the butterfly came forth. 

From such bondage in death, a new freedom is born. The word of liberation is at last given to one who at last is ready to receive it.

"You never have to drink again as long as you live, if you don't want to."

That remark is sometimes made by already sober alcoholics to other alcoholics who have come to them seeking release from their own addictions. Those who deliver that message claim no authority for doing so. Their words speak for themselves, on the basis of their own experience.

If the alcoholics seeking sobriety have come to the break-point in the trajectory of their own addictions--that is, to use the common way of putting it in the relevant circles, if they have "hit bottom"--and are ready at last to be liberated from that addiction, then hearing such words spoken by such a source is a liberating experience. Once heard, the message so delivered--spoken by those who speak with no authorization beyond the words themselves, expressing their own experience as alcoholics who have already themselves been delivered by such a freeing word--sets those who hear it free themselves.

They, in turn, will eventually find themselves ready to become teachers of what they have learned.  They will know they are ready when their own students appear--as they will.  

Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

                                                            --John 8:11 (NRSV)

That is the freeing word Jesus delivers to the woman caught in adultery. The story is told in John's Gospel--a word that literally means "good news." 

As that story goes (John 8:3-11), Jesus is at the temple in Jerusalem. Hoping to catch and expose him in a punishable violation of Mosaic law, a group of "scribes and Pharisees"--which is to say official Jewish authorities of the day--bring the woman before him. Telling him the woman was "caught in the very act of adultery,"  they remind him that, "in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women." 

Thinking to catch him in the trap they have just set, they ask Jesus: "Now, what do you say?" Jesus gives no direct answer. Instead, he kneels down and begins writing with his finger on the ground. When they persist in their questioning, he finally rises and says to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Then he bends down and begins writing on the ground again.

Rembrandt’s drawing of the scene with the woman caught in adultery

Rembrandt’s drawing of the scene with the woman caught in adultery

One by one, the woman's accusers leave. Jesus is finally left alone with her. Straightening up again, he says: "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she replies. "Neither do I condemn you," Jesus says, then goes on to speak the words I quoted above, freeing the woman to go and sin no more.

I was in my mid-forties before I was ready to hear the words that end the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery as words liberating that woman from her very bondage to sin. Sitting in church one day when that passage was read as the Gospel passage assigned for that day, I suddenly heard it differently than I had always heard it before.

Before that moment, I had always taken the end of the story as a warning to the woman not to repeat her offense of adultery. I'd always before heard it as a warning delivered as an unspoken but implied threat--namely, the threat that, if she were to dare to repeat her offense and come once again before the same judge, then she could certainly count on receiving punishment. 

That is, prior to that morning in church when I heard it again, but now as for the very first time, I'd always taken Jesus' parting words as delivering the same veiled threat that such a judge might deliver when he chose not to sentence some already convicted defendant to any prison time, but instead handed down a "suspended sentence." Such a judge in such a court under such circumstances will often tell the convicted defendant so sentenced something to this effect:  "Though I'm letting you go without punishment this time, don't let it happen again. If you ever come before this court again, I will throw the book at you!"

On that morning during my mid-forties, however, when I heard that old story yet again, I heard the truth of the story at last, for the first time. I heard Jesus's words not as a threat to the woman about the dire consequences she would face if she ever sinned again. Instead, I heard them as "gospel," as "good news." I finally heard them as the words of liberation--the freeing words--they were.

When we are finally ready to be set free of our own bodies of death, we will hear such freeing words ourselves.

Eventually, students may appear, demonstrating that we are ready to speak such words to them in turn.

*     *     *

Not a bad deal for a bunch of dead people!  

*In his article, "The Observations of Malcolm X," in The Ghion Journal (January 29, 2019).