Setting the Prisoner Free

I was at Mass the other day, and one of those readings from Isaiah came up about God’s servant bringing forth justice to the nations, opening the eyes of the blind, and setting prisoners free. I thought: “Really? Is God really going to set prisoners free?”

It’s easy enough at such moments to turn a verse like this into a spiritual metaphor and say that what the text really means is not that God will physically set prisoners free, but that He will set us free internally from sin. It’s not clear to me whether it would be easier for God to set a prisoner free from a physical prison or to set a person like me free from sin. Blasting open an iron door is something even we can do. Changing someone’s hardened heart seems harder.

So although in certain moods, I wonder whether God really sets prisoners free from physical prisons, at other times, I stumble on whether God can break me free from the grip of sin.

Perhaps you know the feeling: You go to confession month after month, year after year, and a lot of the same sins keep coming up. Pride, vanity, lust for worldly goods; I’m lazy, think only about myself most of the time, worry too much about silly things: totally the opposite of “Christ-like” in most ways. So it makes me wonder: Can God really delve deep into that dungeon, break down those walls, and set me free?

When such doubts arise, sometimes the best thing to do is to let the two interpretations reinforce one other. When personal sin seems unconquerable, I try to remember that God can break prisoners out of even the worst dungeons – and that tyrants who have tried to destroy the Church are long gone and the Church remains strong centuries later. I try to remember, for instance, that the Soviet Union collapsed and the Iron Curtain came down, almost overnight, even though very few people really expected this to happen, except the children of Fatima who heard Mary promise it. But if God can do all that, then I suppose He can get through to one silly little sinner.

I’m not saying I make it easy, but hey, He’s God. He created the entire universe – every quasar, every pulsar, every galaxy, and all the “dark matter” (whatever that is) – and He keeps every atom, quark, and Higgs boson in its proper place. If He can do all that, I imagine He can figure out how to deal with me.

I’m not saying it might not take a while. He didn’t resolve the Soviet problem overnight, after all. These things happen in God’s own time. It tends to be frustrating because I like things to happen on my schedule – usually right now. But I imagine, in my better moments, that if we do our part day by day, then eventually, the walls come down, sometimes when we least expect it.

Saint John of Nepomuk Hearing the Confession of the Queen of Bohemia by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, c. 1740 [Galleria Sabauda,Turin]
Saint John of Nepomuk Hearing the Confession of the Queen of Bohemia by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, c. 1740 [Galleria Sabauda,Turin]

We might describe the first interpretation of the Isaiah passage as the literal sense of the text: God physically sets prisoners free. The other, metaphorical meaning of the passage is what we might call the moral sense of the text: it deals with freedom from sin.

In the classical Christian understanding of the Scriptures, these two are related in crucial ways to two others: the christological and anagogical senses. The first is based on the understanding that passages in Scripture refer ultimately to Christ, and the second deals with the “final things.” My hope that prisoners can and will be liberated from their physical prisons and my hope for liberation from sin both have as their foundation my faith that Christ has risen from the dead. St. Paul says: “If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile and we are still in our sins.” Indeed if Christ is not risen, “we are of all people most to be pitied.”

I am an adult convert, and I spent my second Easter as a Catholic at the bedside of my dying mother, who passed away on a cold, clear, star-filled Easter Sunday morning at around 3 a.m. I remember thinking to myself on that long, cold drive back to the hospital after we had gotten the call: “Well, this is what it’s all about. After all the philosophy and theology, it comes down to this. Do I really believe that Christ has won for us – for my mother – victory over death?” And I do.

If Christ can beat even death – pretty much the ultimate challenge, one would suppose — then I imagine He can deal with some basic sin, no matter how deeply ingrained it is, especially since He created us and in the Scriptures it’s clear that sin and death are connected.

What am I supposed to think? He can raise Himself from the dead but can’t quite figure out how to deal with me – as if I were a complicated math problem He couldn’t quite figure out? Seems unlikely. Only an odd pride would keep me thinking that.

So the more I hold firm to my Easter faith in Christ’s resurrection and my faith in the general resurrection of the dead, the more hope I have that I can gain freedom from the imprisonment of sin.

It would be odd to believe in liberation from death, but then have trouble believing in liberation from sin. And yet I imagine I’m not alone in this problem, no matter how much people may seem to reject the notion of sin. There must be some reason why so many people, even non-Catholics who would never darken the door of a church otherwise, show up to get ashes on Ash Wednesday. They know something’s not right.

And yet, if Christ has risen from the dead, how many other wondrous things might be possible? It boggles the mind – in every sense.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.