23rd SUNDAY-C- September 4, 2022
Wisdom 9: 13-18; Psalm 90;
Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14: 25-33
by Jude Siciliano, OP
Today’s gospel is one of those when I want to say to Jesus, "I wish you hadn’t said that!" I refer to the part about how prospective followers must hate their "father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and even their own life." How is it that going to sound to our regular Sunday worshipers? Or, for us? I don’t think the preacher can skip over, or soft-pedal, what people in the pews will hear. As one commentary puts it, this is a "complex pericope."
The gospel is filled with stories of Jesus’ love and compassion for sinners, but today he is telling us to hate our closest family members! We talk a lot about "family values" in our country, yet here Jesus asks that we turn our backs on those we love and follow him. Previously (12:51-53) he told us he had come not to bring peace, but division and that a household would be divided because of him. We know that did happen, especially in the first generations of the church.
Jesus is making his point through very strong images. He is not proposing a comfortable faith. He is asking more of us than weekly church attendance and occasional prayers for special needs. (It is not about the Sign of the Cross from the free-throw line.")
Though today’s language sounds harsh, this is not the first time Jesus has challenged people to sacrifice if they want to follow him. He previously told his Pharisee host not to invite family to a banquet, but the poor, lame and blind (14:1). Followers of Jesus have not only joined, but have become part of a new family that is not bound by blood, but by faith in Christ.
In Jesus’ world a person received their identity by membership in a family. To be cast out, or reject one’s family, meant to be a non-person in the world. The family also provided safety in situations of personal and tribal conflict. So, if one left their family for Jesus what did they have for identity, companionship and protection? Jesus’s followers would have him and his ways, which he is quite clear means, taking up our cross – Jesus’ cross – and following him.
Jesus is not offering his followers a religion of prosperity and success, despite the message of some contemporary preachers. We want security and assurance for our decision to follow him and Jesus asks us to put all that aside and lose our lives for his sake. He is very explicit and leaves no doubt that to follow him will cost us. Our faith is not an abstraction; it has very concrete consequences for us. Luke tells us that, "Great crowds were traveling with Jesus." I bet those numbers dwindled when they heard what he said! Imagine how vibrant our faith communities would be if more members accepted Jesus’s invitation and made conscious and daily decisions to follow him. How much impact would we have on the poor, ignored and outcasts in our society?
Paul’s letter to Philemon makes a rare Sunday appearance as our second reading today. It is only one chapter long (25 verses) and I daresay most of us have rarely, if ever, read it. It is a most human and warm letter, which helps counter the sometimes harsh reputation Paul has.
In today’s reading we sense the love and pastoral Paul has for both Philemon and Onesimus. It is not the first time Paul has revealed this human side. For example, he shows affection to the Philippians "I thank my God whenever I think of you and every time I pray for all of you, I pray with joy…." (1:3). He also names over 30 friends in his letter to the Romans. The letter to Philemon exhibits a loving and thoughtful Paul who is urging two feuding church members to be reconciled. Even more, he exhorts the two to be models to others of the new life they have in Christ.
Philemon was a prosperous Christian whose house was used as a church for local Christians. Paul writes to him on behalf of his slave Onesimus. What did Onesimus do? Was he a runaway slave? Had he stolen from Philemon? We don’t know, but he had met the imprisoned Paul and became a Christian through Paul’s instruction. Philemon was also converted by Paul’s ministry. How touching and very human are the opening lines of the reading. Paul describes himself as "an old man who is now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus." He speaks very personally of his current condition and also of his affection and dependence on Onesimus in his imprisonment.
Still, Paul does what Paul always does in his ministry: he appeals for reconciliation and for Philemon to receive Onesimus back, "...more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me but more so to you, as a man and in the Lord." Paul asks a person of wealth and standing to relieve the burden of one who is weaker and dependent. Can we, like Paul, speak for just treatment and compassion for the separated, or shunned people in our own religious communities? There are conflicts among groups and between individuals in our church. What can we do as baptized agents of reconciliation? (Cf "Justice Bulletin Board" below)
Paul does not address the institution of slavery. Perhaps that is because he, like other Christians of his time, believed in Jesus’ imminent return. With Jesus’ delay, later generations, up to the present, will condemn and fight to end slavery and racism. We also need to look around our own local and universal church, name the situations where members are treated as second and third class and speak and act on their behalf.
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