23 Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 9: 13 – 18b; Ps 90; Letter to Philemon; Luke 14: 25 – 33
St. Paul wrote a number of letters to different churches and also three written to individuals – two to Timothy and one to Philemon. We heard a portion of the Letter to Philemon – 7 verses – the whole letter is all of 23 verses. I encourage you to take time to read the whole letter – like all of the Sacred Word it has a message for us.
The letter is from a friend to a friend, a beloved fellow Christian. With great affection Paul writes, “I find great joy and comfort in your love, because through you the hearts of God’s people have been refreshed.” Surely, Philemon was touched by Paul’s words but what was to follow was quite another matter.
Philemon had a slave, Onesimus, who had run away and it seems, had stolen from his master. Paul alludes to this when he writes, “If he has done you an injury or owes you anything, charge it to me.” In the heart of this letter Paul is asking Philemon to do very, very radical act – to receive Onesimus back – and not just that but “It is he I am sending to you – and that means I am sending my heart…no longer a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother to you, since now you will know him both as a man and in the Lord.” Paul pressures Philemon gently but it is pressure nonetheless.
We can imagine that in receiving this impassioned plea from a friend Philemon did a bit of sweating. Perhaps, at first he felt anger, felt Paul had overstepped his bounds. The letter ends with Paul saying, “Confident of your compliance, I write you…And get a room ready for me: I hope through your prayers I shall be restored to you.”
How did Philemon respond? Did he comply? There was a lot at stake in all this – in a culture in which slavery abounded – how far did the following of Christ take one? There is no follow up to this letter so we do not know how Philemon responded.
Although the plea is directed to one man, Philemon, as God’s word there is a teaching, a call to each one of us – followers of Christ – what is my attitude toward others – how do I treat others, no matter who they are. Are there people in my life, like an Onesimus who has betrayed me in some way – have I been like an Onesimus to another, have I betrayed someone?
Not exactly a letter the Gospel is a message from Our Lord through Luke to each of us. It comes from a Heart of divine affection, of infinite mercy that is directed to our eternal good. In today’s Gospel Jesus teaches us about discipleship – what it means to truly believe, to be committed to Him, to follow Him. And that is important to us – that is why we come here today. But there is something in the Gospel that is rather hard to accept, even accept at all. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” What do we make of this “hate” – just ignore it, pass on quickly, it seems so contrary to what we feel, what we expect of life. Did Jesus really mean this literally? Did Jesus hate Mary and Joseph?
We must remember when the Son of God became a man, He took upon Himself a definite way of life. He did not play at being a Jewish man, a Semite and therefore, when He spoke, He spoke in the idiom, in the language of His people. What sounds so unthinkable is really not. His speech is a Semitic hyperbole that exaggerates a contrast so that it can be seen more clearly. We sometimes use hyperbole “this suitcase weighs a ton” “the homily was like a taste of eternity”. “Hate” here does not mean anger or hostility. It indicates that if there is a conflict, one’s response in faith takes precedence over even the most sacred of human relationships.
To love God above all things does not mean to love others less by any means. By loving God first, strongly, with affection and gratitude has to affect my love for others so that I truly love them and desire what is best for them. Love for God overflows into life or it is not truly love.
Just as Philemon had to face his Christian life squarely, without compromises so must we, that is, if my Catholic faith means anything to me. I believe that today’s Gospel is asking each one of us to look honestly, squarely at my relationship with my God – something extremely fundamental, extremely basic – What is my relationship with God, really – do I have the desire, the courage to reflect on this? And in addition, do I desire to act upon what I perceive?