Deep in the Middle Ages wave after wave of Christians went on crusades to the Holy Land to liberate the holy places from the Moslems. These crusades went on for several centuries and failed in the end. But in the meantime there were vast numbers of casualties: many thousands killed or injured in battle, tens of thousands including a king of France cut down by disease on the way, and thousands more including a king of England held captive for ransom. Whole religious orders of priests were founded with the sole purpose of ransoming captives and liberating prisoners from the clutches of the heathens. And sometimes those priests would even offer themselves in exchange for the prisoners!
Just an isolated moment in history long ago and far away? We might think so, but today's Gospel disagrees. For, as we heard so clearly, Jesus defines his whole mission as ransoming captives. "I have come to give my life in ransom for the many." In defining himself in that way, Jesus also defines our vocation as his followers. So we'd better figure out what this business of ransoming captives and rescuing prisoners is all about.
First of all, what it's not about for us is dashing off to Lebanon or Iran or Iraq to negotiate with terrorists. Our task is more subtle than that, and our opportunities are much closer at hand. Jesus is asking us to do for one another what he tries to do for us. He's asking us to invest our very best energies in the task of setting one another free from whatever holds us captive.
To understand that vocation we have to look closely at the kinds of things that enslave people. Just think of the fears, and angers, and grudges that hold people captive. Think of the bad habits of a lifetime that are trapping so many. Think of the bad ideas that imprison so many. And think of the compulsive need for things, the need for stuff, which holds so many of us hostage and forecloses the possibility of a happy life. Just call up in your mind's eye the face of anyone you know, friend or foe, and you'll see there, even in the very best of people, the hints of prison walls, the need to be set free.
So how do we go about helping one another escape our prison walls? Tons of free advice will rarely do it we've already learned that! The most powerful, liberating gift we have to give is our steadfast, compassionate presence. Our strength, our goodness, and our willingness to continue walking at the side of our friend can, in time, become strength and goodness and freedom for our friend.
That is a wonderful gift we have to give: strength, goodness, and freedom. What a sadness it would be if we failed to give it!