Flight into Freedom


Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.  But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.  But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.  Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.  Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.  Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.  You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery.  But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.  It was also said,  Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.  But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife –  unless the marriage is unlawful – causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.  Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.  But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.  Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’  Anything more is from the evil one.”

–Matthew 5:17-37–


When I was still teaching at Bethlehem Catholic High School, Danny D’Ambrosio, a former student who was working his way toward becoming an airline pilot and who needed to log in some flight time, asked me if I wanted to fly to Harrisburg with him.  I consulted my grade books and discovered that the fellow had been a somewhat decent student and that I had not given him an unusual amount of demerits.  The kid had no vendetta to settle, so I took him up on his offer.

On the appointed day, we went to Queen City Airport in Allentown.  Danny carefully filled out and filed a flight plan.  We waited for some time, but once given the okay, he was assigned a single-prop Cessna.  I climbed aboard, and Danny handed me a set of headphones so that I could listen in on all the communications between him and the flight tower.  Meanwhile, the young pilot went through what seemed to me a very extensive and tedious systems check, lasting some twenty minutes.  Once that was completed, Danny got into the cockpit, started the engine, and patiently waited to be assigned a runway.   We taxied into position and had to wait again for the go-ahead for takeoff.

At last we were airborne.  It wasn’t long, however, before I heard the air traffic controller give Danny this message:  “You are about to leave Allentown air space.  Please change your frequency to such-and-such and check in with Reading flight control…”  We flew for a few minutes and Danny, aware of some approaching cloud cover, asked the Reading flight tower for permission to use visual flight rules and fly under the clouds.  “Negative—there is too much traffic!” came the answer.  “You are to assume heading xyz and fly over the clouds.”  We proceeded without incident, Danny all the while checking his instruments to make sure that he was flying exactly according to the flight tower’s specifications.  Once again the static in my headphones crackled into life:  “You are about to leave Reading air space.  Please change your frequency to so-and-so and check in with Harrisburg flight control.”  Before long, it was the tower in Harrisburg that was dictating Danny’s flight path.  Following the controller’s instructions and with permission to land, Danny brought the aircraft safely back down onto terra firma.

Soon it was time to repeat the whole process again for the journey back to Allentown—the filing of a flight plan, the airport’s permission to proceed, the extensive aircraft systems check, the assigning of a runway, the permission to take off, and the precise instructions from the three flight towers.  As I was sitting next to my former student, the thought occurred to me:  Hey, for crying out loud, this kid is nothing but a flying robot.  He can’t even breathe on his own.  He’s got to follow other people’s instructions.  He’s got to ask for permission for everything he does, and he can’t make any independent decisions without getting an okay from someone else.  Who in his right mind would want to be a pilot?  How fun could that actually be?  And then Danny D’Ambrosio uttered a statement that almost made my eye fall out—not my prosthetic eye but my good eye!  “Father Ezaki,” he said, “I love to fly.  When I’m up here in the clouds with the earth far below me, I feel so free!”  Free?  I thought to myself.  It’s sounds as if the kid’s in a vice grip of obedience.  How can he be free?

Our First Reading and our Gospel today are about obedience to law.  Sirach tells us, “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you.”[1]  In our Gospel we learn that Jesus has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.  Moreover, the obedience that He requires far exceeds the statutes set down by Moses.  We are to avoid not only murder but anger, not only adultery but lust, not only arbitrary divorce but divorce altogether, not only false oaths but swearing in general.  If we bristle under all of these laws and commandments, maybe it’s because we’ve forgotten the secret Danny D’Ambrosio knew instinctively in his heart:  Obedience to just law means freedom rather than restraint.  I repeat.  Obedience means freedom.  That flies in the face of so much of what we take for granted in today’s society.  Here, however, is what Frank J. Sheed writes in his wonderful book, Theology for Beginners:


That there are laws in the universe, no one doubts: the law of gravity is one obvious example: the laws of dietetics are another.  By learning these laws and living according to them we gain freedom.  Pause upon this, if the thought is new to you.  Freedom is always bound up with obedience to the law of God; there is no such thing for man as freedom from these laws, there is only freedom within them.  Each new law learned by us increases our freedom.  We learn the laws of gravity, air currents, movement of bodies: and at last we can fly in the upper air.  We learn what elements are necessary in our diet, and certain diseases vanish.

That there are laws applying to man’s soul, moral laws, is just as true.  The same God who made the law of gravity, made the laws of justice and purity.  Physical laws do not affect only those who accept them—the new-born baby can die for want of the right vitamins or be killed by falling from a height.  It is the same with the laws of morality.  Because both sorts are laws, we cannot break them.  How could we break the law of gravity?  We could jump off a cliff, but by doing that we should not break the law of gravity, we should illustrate it.

We cannot break the laws, but, if we ignore them, they can break us.  In this the laws of morality are the same as physical laws.  If we disobey them, even in ignorance, our nature is always damaged, for they are the laws of reality.  If we disobey them, knowing that God has commanded us to obey them, then there is sin, the worst damage of all.[2]


By learning God’s laws—physical and moral– and by living according to them, we increase our freedom.

So consider our Gospel.  If I refrain from committing murder, I’ll stay out of prison.  If I can learn to control my anger, I will enjoy the freedom that comes from healthy relationships and a healthy body.  If I refrain from committing adultery, I’ll be free to look those I love straight in the eye and free from the burden of having to make up lies to cover up my tracks.  If I avoid situations that enflame my lustful desires, I’ll be free to make decisions with a clear head and with cool reason.  If I am married and avoid divorce, I’ll have the freedom of seeing my children regularly.  If I stand by my word and refrain from taking elaborate oaths, I will enjoy the freedom that comes when people trust me.

In short, freedom does not mean doing whatever I want outside the law.  It means willingly obeying God within the law.  I need to embrace again the lesson I once learned from Danny D’Ambrosio:  True freedom comes from obedience.

[1] Sirach 15:15.

[2] Theology for Beginners, Chapter VIII.