8 September 2013
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
In light of the seemingly endless crisis over Syria, the parable Jesus uses in today’s gospel has a chilly aspect. But Jesus is talking about renunciation, not making war. Even so it gives us something to think about. Think before you act.
Jesus had a way with words, and it was often pretty shocking. Obviously, you can’t really take Jesus literally when he’s just grabbing your attention. At least not all the time. Some of his closest followers, such as Martha, Mary and Lazarus, had their own homes and seemed able to provide very suitable hospitality for Jesus and his disciples. But the first reading from the Book of Wisdom also suggests that something strange is going on here. And what does a runaway slave have to do with any of it?
What we hear is that if we can barely understand how to cope with ordinary problems in everyday life, how can we possibly hope to fathom the wisdom of God? For not only is God’s wisdom as far above human wisdom as the stars are above the earth, God’s wisdom often looks pretty foolish to us human beings. It looks like madness, St Paul says. Divine madness. The folly of the Cross and the folly of total, uncompromising loyalty to an itinerant carpenter who was executed as a criminal and couldn’t even count on his best friends to stay by him to the end.
The gospel actually invites us to take Jesus very seriously. He challenges us with outlandish statements, not so we will go out and hate others as we hate ourselves, but so that we will recognize that anything or anyone we prefer over God and God’s kingdom will to that extent bar us from that kingdom, keeping us from the love and grace and healing forgiveness of God. In fact, Jesus, you might recall, tells us to love others as we love ourselves.
Today’s readings are not about possessions, but about possessing, about the desire to have, to control, to own something or someone. True freedom, Jesus tells us, lies in the ability to let go, and more precisely, in actually letting go. Letting go not just of everything, but of anything that comes between us and God.
A case in point is provided by Paul’s brief letter to his friend Philemon. It concerned a runaway slave named Onesimos, who apparently joined Paul at some point in his final trip to Rome. Onesimos, by the way, means “useful,” and Paul includes a nice play on words because of that. “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.” Although he has grown to love Onesimos as a son, Paul wants him to go back to Philemon, his Christian master and owner. Slavery, after all, means being owned by someone, not being free to be oneself.
Paul is sending Onesimos back with the request that Philemon treat him as a brother. But why didn’t Paul simply ask him to free Onesimus and his other slaves once for all? For that matter, why did the Christian church take 1700 years to speak out against slavery and demand abolition? In this country, church officials and even religious congregations owned slaves before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It might be noted, by the way, that the movement toward abolition was not a project of the hierarchy, but of maverick laymen and women, mostly Protestants.
As with marriage, the family, and other social institutions, Paul believed that all of them, including slavery, were about to wither away in the burning love of Christ’s return. There were more urgent things on Paul’s mind than attacking one of the most deeply entrenched social structures of the ancient world. He even called himself a slave of Christ and the gospel.
But there is more to it than that. It would have been relatively easy for Paul to ask Philemon to free Onesimos. Christians did often free their slaves. But that would not have meant that Philemon would have loved him and forgiven him. Paul in fact sends Onesimos back not as a runaway slave, but as a dear brother, in fact a blood brother — which is to say, an equal, a co-inheritor. How could Philemon continue to regard Onesimos as a slave if he was in fact his own brother? Sadly, we don’t know how that part of the story ended.
Slavery of any kind, including domestic slavery, is an appalling failure of human respect and love. But freeing slaves is not enough. Following the American Civil War, the lot of many slaves was far worse after emancipation than before it. Homeless, separated from their families, without prospect of work or assistance, many slaves starved to death, others fell into crime, or were taken cruel advantage of by speculators eager to make quick profits from cheap labor. Another century would pass before justice would even begin to rectify the situation of black men and especially women in the United States. Just last week we commemorated the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963, with his prophetic cry, “Free at last, free at last, Thank God we are free at last!”
We still have far to go before we as a people recognize our Onesimos as a dear sister and brother, in fact, a blood-sister, and act accordingly. The reason, of course, is obvious. And this brings us back to the words of Jesus. It is not the slave who lacks freedom — it is the slave-owner, who is enslaved by his own possessiveness. We do not so much possess things or persons, as they possess us. Have you ever really tried to give away your possessions? The best most of us can do is throw them out. My old friend Brother Henry used to go around the priory at night fishing unwanted clothes out of the trash bins so he could wash them and take them to the Little Brothers of the Poor.
What Paul proposed was much more radical than merely freeing a runaway slave. What he asked for was divine folly. So be warned. Being a Christian, being the good news of Jesus Christ, is a little like dying. If we believe what Jesus said in today’s gospel, it is a lot like dying.
So let us pray for the courage to die — to our selves, to our desire to possess, to our forgetfulness of other people’s needs and the God who so dearly, foolishly, loves us and wants us all to be free.