Orbiting Dicta

23rd Sunday of the Year: The Price of Success

The week before last was dreadful enough, marked by disasters and tragedies mainly devised by people with guns intent somehow on increasing the terrible weekly, monthly, and yearly toll of deadly violence.  It was followed by what seemed to be never-ending and unprecedented natural disasters, as thousands of acres of irreplaceable and life-giving Amazonian rain forest (and other forests around the world) were incinerated.  Then a hurricane named Dorian roared across the western Atlantic, devastating the lovely islands called the Bahamas, where Christopher Columbus first came ashore over 500 years ago.

“Unprecedented” is a word we have been hearing more frequently lately, and will no doubt hear again and no doubt much too soon as the ravages of global climate change make themselves increasingly felt. The growing catastrophe is made all the more heart-breaking as the desperate efforts of many non-governmental organizations and international alliances to curtail the assault on the planet’s life-giving systems are blocked by denial and actually aggravated by deliberate government policy.

Here, Jesus’ cautionary parables in today’s gospel reading could well be taken to heart. And should be. But what we hear first from the Book of Wisdom is that if we can

Wisdom 9:13-18
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Luke 14:25-33

barely understand how to cope with ordinary problems in everyday life, how can we possibly hope to fathom the wisdom of God?  For God’s wisdom is the folly of the Cross. In this case, as the saying goes, by living simply so that others may simply live.

Jesus grabs our attention and challenges us with outlandish statements, not so we will reject those who love us, all our property, and our own selves, but so that we will recognize that anything or anyone we prefer over God and God’s kingdom will end in frustration, barring us from that kingdom, keeping us from the love and grace and healing forgiveness of God. Today such carelessness has global consequences.

A case in point is provided by the second reading, Paul’s little letter to his friend Philemon.  It concerned a runaway slave named Onésimos, who apparently joined Paul at some point in his final trip to Rome.  His name, by the way, means “useful,” and Paul includes a little play on words because of that. Although he has grown to love Onésimos as a son, Paul wants him to go back to Philemon, his master and owner.  Slavery, after all, means being owned by someone, not being free to be oneself.

But why didn’t Paul simply ask Philemon to abolish slavery, to free his slaves once for all?  For that matter, why did the Christian church as a whole take almost two millennia to condemn slavery?

When we think for a moment, something of the divine folly begins to shine through even here. Early in the young church’s history, it was widely held that the institutions of this world would soon pass away — including marriage, family, the state, and so on, including, of course, slavery.  It is understandable that there were more urgent things on Paul’s mind than attacking one of the most deeply entrenched if sinful social structures of the ancient world.  He even called himself a slave of Christ and the gospel.

There is more to it than that. It would have been relatively easy for Paul to ask Philemon to free Onésimos.  But that would not have meant that Philemon would have loved him and forgiven him. So he sends Onésimos 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 Onésimos as property if he was in fact his own brother?

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 former 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.  We still have far to go before we as a people recognize our Onésimos as a dear brother or sister, in fact, a blood-sister, and act accordingly.

The reason, of course, is obvious.  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, never mind the needs of the poor!

Which brings to the real point of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel reading. Whether intent on building a tower (or a wall, for that matter) much less fighting a war, wisely calculating the true cost and the likely consequences is a necessary precondition of success – one way or another. The main point is that accomplishing an overwhelmingly difficult task requires sacrifice, particularly of the possessions and prejudices that block our success. If we let greed and avarice dominate our thinking, personally or nationally, we run the considerable risk of losing everything in the end.

The folly of God’s wisdom may yet save what’s left of the world. But we had better get moving. It’s late. And we have been warned.