Father Donald Senior, CP

Sept. 8: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Philemon’s ‘problem’

Wis 9:13-18; Ps 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17; Phmn 9-10, 12-17; Lk 14:25-33

The second reading for this Sunday is taken from the Letter to Philemon. Consisting of only 25 verses, it is the briefest of Paul’s letters but packs a punch far beyond its size.

Paul writes from prison, perhaps in Rome or Ephesus. This is the only time that this remarkable letter of Paul is read at a Sunday Mass, so we should take advantage of it.

Most of Paul’s correspondence is directed to local Christian communities such as those at Corinth or Philippi, but this letter is addressed to individuals — first of all, “Philemon, our beloved and our coworker” and then “to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church at your house.” 

It appears that Philemon is well-known to Paul and is the head of a house church probably located at Colossae, a city in the Lycus Valley of present-day Turkey. “Apphia” must be a prominent member of this house church, and Paul speaks of her affectionately as his “sister.” “Archippus,” whom Paul calls his “fellow soldier,” may have been someone who had done missionary work alongside Paul in the past.

People with only a glancing acquaintance with Paul’s letters might think of him as abstract or distant. But Paul speaks with much affection and emotion when corresponding with his beloved fellow Christians. 

In this letter, we also see that Paul does not hesitate to use his bonds of friendship to achieve a favor he asks. It appears that a slave called Onesimus, who was owned by Philemon, had run away from his master, which was a serious offense in Roman law, punishable by death.

In circumstances unknown to us, Paul met Onesimus in prison and the former slave was a great help to Paul (Paul plays upon the meaning of the name Onesimus, “useful”). The apostle speaks of Onesimus in endearing terms: “my child,” “my heart,” “whose father I have become in my imprisonment.”

Paul, it seems, is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, bearing this letter (“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.”). He asks his friend to receive Onesimus, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.” 

A few years ago, University of Notre Dame scholar James Burtchaell wrote a book titled, “Philemon’s Problem.” Its subtitle, “A Theology of Grace,” reveals its main thesis. Paul the Apostle is the one who gives Philemon his “problem.” Should he exercise his legal right and punish his runaway slave? Or, as Paul proposes, should Philemon now view Onesimus through the eyes of his faith and welcome him no longer as a slave but as a fellow human being and a brother in Christ? 

Philemon, in other words, was faced with a genuine dilemma. Should he act in accord with what his own Roman society would expect in such a case? Or does he respond as a disciple of Jesus? Should he view Onesimus as a slave to be punished or as a fellow child of God to be embraced?

That powerful question is also proclaimed in the Gospel passage for this Sunday. As elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus underscores the need to be aware of the cost of discipleship. At times, following Jesus means having to “carry the cross” of discipleship. 

He uses two practical examples here: If you plan to build a tower, first make sure you have the resources you need to finish the job; and if you are going to war against an enemy, you ought to first see if you have enough troops.

No doubt when Philemon got this letter from Paul it reminded him about the cost of following Jesus. We, too, can be faced with such decisions — some great, some routine — when we are called to act as Christians and not simply follow what everyone else does. 

Did Philemon embrace Onesimus as a brother? We don’t know, but Paul ends his letter with confidence: “With trust in your compliance I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”


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