Monday, September 6, 2010

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Here is a bit of trivia for you… did you know that the letter to Philemon, from where the second reading of today is taken, is the shortest book in the bible? Just 400 words. In fact today is the only time in the 3 year cycle of readings that we get to hear parts of this letter. However this short work is one of the gems we have received from the Church of the first century. The letter concerns a young runaway slave called Onesimus who was the property of Philemon, a personal friend of Paul.
During St Paul’s times slavery was a common practice, and Christians being part of the culture of this time were forced to accept it as a normal way of life. We are not told why this slave ran away, but because of his social status, this young man had no hope to escape his condition, hence we can assume that he had a very good reason for leaving his master. While on the run Onesimus finds his way to Paul, who was imprisoned, probably in Rome. This encounter was instrumental to the young man’s conversion to Christianity, and with time he became an indispensable helper to the apostle.
We are not told how it happened but somehow Paul learned of his young companion’s situation and did what the social norms and the civil law of his times demanded of him. With great sorrow in his hart he felt obliged to return the slave to his master.
In this letter we hear Paul asking Philemon to “out of love” receive his young companion not as a slave but as a brother in Christ. Perhaps, he says, this is the reason why Onesimus was “Away for a while” so that he can return to his master not as a slave but as a brother in the Lord. With these words Paul reminds Philemon that regardless of cultural practices, Christians are to love each other as members of a family. That this love goes beyond accepted social roles of master and slave, and that these roles have been gone away by the fact Jesus Christ has purchased every man, woman and child with his own blood.
It is interesting that after we hear such an appeal to Christian love, in the Gospel reading we hear Jesus exclaim “If anyone comes to me without hating his mother and his father, wife, children, brothers and sisters and even his own live they cannot be called my disciples.” How are we to reconcile these two readings? One speaking about love between brothers and another one about the necessity of hating friends, families even our own lives for the sake of the Gospel?
To answer these questions we need to look at who were the recipients of these words. When Paul writes to Philemon he knew his friend was a follower of the gospel already; Philemon knew what it meant to go against friends and family, to abandon possessions and social status for the sake of the kingdom of God. This is why Paul speaks to him in the way he did, and expects Philemon to out of love, do the right thing.
In the Gospel Jesus is speaking to “The crowds”, these were the people that followed him and were “on the fence” trying to decide if they should become his disciples or not. Jesus intension is not to scandalize them, or for that matter us, but to make sure we do not get the wrong idea about what it means to be a disciple. He is “telling it like it is”; becoming a disciple is like a man building a tower or a king planning a war, if we do not know what we are getting into, we can find ourselves in a lot of trouble. Being a disciple sometimes might mean having to go against anything or anyone that tries to prevent us from achieving this goal even to the cost of our own personal loss. The hatred Jesus speaks in the gospel should not be taken in the sense of hating specific persons but in the sense of what a specific person trying to stop us from becoming disciples represents. A friend, a spouse or a parent that is against us following the teachings of Church should be rejected by us, for the sake of our own eternal salvation, being a disciple of Jesus should be our number one priority in life.
In a sense Paul’s letter to Philemon is a reminder to us of this fact. When Onesimus accepted the gospel, he had to come to terms with the fact that he was not a freeman and that his destiny did not belong to himself or Paul but to his master; to be a Christian is to embrace our own personal crosses in humbleness. When Paul decided to send Onesimus back, even when this caused him great sorrow, he did it anyway; to be a Christian is to trust that God at the end of the day will work all things for the sake of the kingdom. When Philemon is reminded that as a brother in Christ, his runaway slave has gained the freedom of the children of God, he had to accept the fact that life as a Christian means to go against the norms of his society and culture for the sake of love.
The letter to Philemon is a gem for us Christians of the 21st century because it reminds us that we have been bought at a great price, and that if we consider ourselves disciples of the Lord we must not allow anything or anyone to stand between us and out eternal destiny even if this means, going against our loved ones, and our friend; it means to accept our daily crosses in humbleness, it means to sometimes sacrifice our personal well being and status for doing what is right, and good, and just.
The letter of Philemon is a gem because it was written for each one of us. Amen.