September 4, 2016: 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Wisdom 9:13–18a / Philemon 9–10,12–17 / Luke 14:25–33
The Struggle of Discipleship
Understood on a surface level Paul’s letter to Philemon is a conundrum. Critics of Holy Scripture––indeed, those who see themselves antagonistic to Christian Faith––love to use this letter as an example how out of touch, or even oppressive, the Bible and Christianity are.
Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, a slave-holder, asking him graciously to take back Onesimus, a slave who had run away. Philemon was a fellow Christian believer. Onesimus had met Paul during one of Paul’s imprisonments and evidently come to faith. In spite of loving Onesimus as a spiritual child and wanting Onesimus to stay with him, Paul is conforming to the law of the land (at the time) and sending Onesimus back to his “owner”, Philemon.
What is going on here? Does the Bible support slavery? Is Paul putting immoral social convention above the law of Christian love? Where is the line between obeying God and the laws of Man? How does this letter fit into Catholic Social Justice or Christian involvement in socio-political issues?
Okay… I’ve asked more questions than I can answer––but, I hope this homily can be an agent for the Holy Spirit to help us think in the context of Christian commitment. Single issues and simple answers are far short of God’s truth. So if we can learn to be thinking always out of an attitude of total allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom (and God help us to do so), then we will be growing into the kind of disciples that honor Jesus.
It helps to understand that Paul was writing a letter to Philemon as a fellow Christian and not an essay on social justice. The intent of this letter is not primarily Christian social ethics (it’s just that modern sensitivities want to make it go that way). In the context of the day in which it was written, Paul is writing to ask (to sensitize) Philemon to look at Onesimus as a new Christian brother and not as a run-away slave. That in itself, at the time, was revolutionary. Given the social order of the day, the best way to undermine the immorality of slavery was for slave-owners to begin to see their slaves as people who are in the image of God and not as property. That did happen through the expanse of the Chuch, and the change (when it followed that pattern) was transformative rather than insurrection and violent revolution.
So this letter to Philemon is about Christian discipleship. Discipleship always takes place within a given socio-political climate, and Christian discipleship is not primarily a temporal political endeavor. Discipleship will always be subversive when it is properly understood and practiced. This is because no earthly socio-political structure is ever conformed totally to the Kingdom of God. When a nation-state is relatively “good” it is still not worthy of ultimate allegiance. When a nation-state is oppressive (and many Christians have suffered under such in the Church’s history), God’s people still obey the government to the extent they can––but all the more give ultimate allegiance to the King whose Kingdom goes beyond anything we can yet fully imagine.
In Paul’s day, regardless of slavery being legal and normal, Christians were to treat others with Jesus-love. If Philemon honored Paul’s request and treated Onesimus as a Christian brother it would change his status even if Onesimus was technically still a “slave”. The “system” would then have a crack.
This is a real-life example (from Paul’s day) of the Wisdom reading and what Jesus is saying in the Gospel. When our hearts are fully given to the Lord and his ways, there is a different way of seeing the various relationships in the world around us regardless of the circumstances. Under the Lordship of Christ, even family relationships are different. Under the Lordship of Christ, political issues and tactics are different. We need to remember this as we are inundated right now with election hype.
Christian discipleship is always misunderstood by the world-spirit. That is why Jesus says: Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Anyone who chooses to follow Jesus will have a cross. Onesimus had the cross of being a Christian slave; Philemon had the cross of being a Christian slave-owner. Each had to face the implications of his own discipleship. We all do. It may be the discouragement of something hard (such as the slavery that touched Onesimus and Philemon). It may be the tempting distraction of something that is inherently good (such as the family relationships which Jesus mentions).
We live in a socio-political environment that has largely bought into the idea that the purpose of government and social mores is to make everyone as comfortable as possible. Paul’s words to Philemon––and Jesus’ words about carrying a cross––make no sense to the so-called “wisdom” of our world. The world-spirit is about convenience and comfort in the here-and-now; Jesus is calling people to be disciples.
If we do not understand that, we cannot understand Scripture and we will not be able to make peace with the true nature of the Church. We are here to follow Jesus. Understanding what that means is not always easy. When we do understand what it means, it is often harder still to practice. But if we open our hearts to the grace that is always saying Follow Me, we will be disciples in the midst of our questions and struggles. Right now you can tell Jesus all over again, Lord, I want to follow…. give me the grace to follow…. I want to be a true disciple above everything else.