Jesus said: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. [Emphasis added] Gospel of St. John, 8.32
These words were spoken at a time in history when much of the known world was ruled by Rome. Freedom existed only for the privileged citizens of Rome. Everyone else suffered as vanquished people, not enjoying all the rights that came with being full citizens. Rome ruled with an iron fist, exacting tribute money from every corner of the empire.
Now the children of Israel had long suffered under various conquerers, their traditions calling them to remember fondly the days of the Kingdom of David. They had at one time been a free people, united in purpose and determined to live according to the Mosaic Law.
The Law of Moses, handed down on Sanai after the people had left the bondage of Egypt, became the foundation on which the people’s society was built. It provided an all encompassing mode of living, from requiring certain rituals be performed, to a system of administering contracts.
Throughout the Law, one strong concept was made clear: that the people owed their existence as a distinct society to the Deity and his protections. The Commandments, as they are called, required the people to acknowledge one God, and to worship him only. The Law found its power on the faith that people placed in Him.
In one sense, the Law was the people’s Constitution. It defined them as a people, and put the world on notice that the people of Israel would remain free from the oppression of lawlessness and chaos. Above all, it caused the people to remember from where they came – out of the bondage of Egypt.
As time passed, the people began to want a king. The reasons for this are varied, and debated even until today. But what appears to have happened is, as time passed the people prospered. They began to trust more in their own work than they did in Providence.
They came to believe it was the Law that led to their prosperity and success as a society. God, while not forgotten, became relegated to becoming a formality; a being who must be acknowledged, but not relied on for his blessings. After all, the Law prescribed the very system for finding and relying on God, did it not?
And so, Israel came to become a kingdom. The king represented authority in society, administering the Law according to the Law. Israel graduated from the various peoples of the world, and became a nation in the world, and an equal among other nations.
After a while, Israel began to suffer what all nations suffer: political strife, gamesmanship, and bankruptcy. It became embroiled with international conflict and war. It even suffered the complete indignity of having half of its population uprooted from their home, and sent to another nation to serve as slaves.
All this, because the people had faith in the Law, and not the Law Giver.
And now we arrive back to the time of Jesus of Nazareth, and his words, “the truth shall make you free.” When he said these words, he was in hot debate with the Pharisees about his message to the people of Israel. He had been preaching about who he was, and from where he came.
“When you have lifted up the Son of man, then shall you know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things. And he that sent me is with me: the Father has not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him. If you continue in my word, then you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
That he spoke with authority offended the Pharisees, for they were the arbiters of the Law. He strongly implied that the “Father” – the Law Giver – was his source of authority to proclaim that he himself was a free man. To the Pharisees he seemed to place himself above the Law, which threatened their position in society.