Father Donald Senior, CP

Philemon's problem

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

Sept. 4: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wis 9:13-18b; Phmn 9-10, 12-17; Lk 14:25-33

A few years ago, University of Notre Dame scholar James Burtchaell published a fascinating short book on Paul the Apostle, titled “Philemon’s Problem.” The letter to Philemon, cited in the first reading for this Sunday, is the briefest of Paul’s letters and one of the most interesting of all.

While probably on house arrest in Rome, Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, his good friend and head of a “house church” in Colossae, present-day Turkey. Apparently, while imprisoned, Paul had been assisted by Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave. Philemon’s “problem” is that Paul is now asking him to take back Onesimus, but without exercising Philemon’s right to severely punish his runaway slave, as Roman law permitted (and even encouraged).

Paul’s letter shows us how artful and persuasive he could be. He speaks tenderly of Onesimus, saying that in sending him back to Philemon he is sending “my own heart.” Paul flatters Philemon, saying he wanted to retain Onesimus for all the help he has given him during his imprisonment (the Greek name Onesimus means “helpful”), but didn’t want to do anything without Philemon’s consent. Then Paul drives home the key point. He asks Philemon to look upon Onesimus from the perspective of his Christian faith, to see him now as a “brother,” beloved both to Paul and to Philemon. Paul asks him to see Onesimus not as a slave but as a “human” and “in the Lord.”

We don’t know Philemon’s response — how could he resist Paul? — yet we can understand his dilemma. The apostle was asking his friend to view the world from a different and challenging point of view. In the light of the Gospel, Onesimus and Philemon were now brothers and were to deal with each other as human beings who were “in the Lord.” This went against all of the assumed mores and social structures that Philemon and virtually all Romans took for granted.

This motif of acquiring the kind of “wisdom” that enables us to see reality from the perspective of our faith in God and in Jesus Christ permeates the readings for this Sunday. The book of Wisdom deals directly with this issue. It recognizes how difficult it is for us as humans to know God’s will. The biblical author notes that even in our everyday lives we have difficulty knowing what to do and are “unsure about our plans.” How can we hope to understand the mystery of God? Only if God’s Holy Spirit gives us true wisdom, the author confesses, are we able to see things from God’s point of view.

Jesus himself seems to speak to his disciples in this same vein in today’s Gospel selection. Luke’s Gospel more than once cites Jesus’ words about the challenge of following him. Some have called this “considered discipleship” — that is, we need to think carefully and seriously about what it means to follow Jesus.

In strong words, Jesus tells his disciples about the cost of following him, putting the Gospel and Jesus’ example first — even before the demands of family life. Two examples drive Jesus’ message home. If someone is going to build a tower, they need to first sit down and figure out the cost; otherwise they might not have what it takes to complete the work. If a king is going to march into battle, he should first consider if he has enough troops to defeat his enemy; otherwise he should negotiate a peace treaty.

Today’s readings alert us that sometimes we are faced with the challenge of living out the Gospel in a way that goes against our usual assumptions and comfort zones. What should we do with a situation at work when a fellow employee is being unfairly treated or even harassed? How am I to vote in circumstances where the right moral choice is not always clear? How should I respond to a family member who has done something truly harmful to me and asks forgiveness? We pray for God’s wisdom to help us respond faithfully.


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