23RD Sunday C
NO LONGER AS A SLAVE
Dear friends in Christ, following Christ demands that we be ready to live as he lived, to love as he loved, to trust in God as he trusted. The practical implication of this is that we seek true wisdom which comes from above and translate it to our daily living in which we all become brothers and sisters. In this new kingdom, no one is a slave, all are free in Christ and we must welcome all as fellow children of God no matter their circumstances.
First reading (Wisdom 9:13-18)
Taking in context, today’s passage is from the prayer of Solomon for wisdom inspired by what is recounted in 1 Kings 3:6-9, ‘Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil…’ When he was chosen by the Lord to succeed his father David, he was also given the opportunity to ask of the Lord what he wanted. Solomon’s response is a prayer in chapter 9 of the book of Wisdom from where today’s passage has been curled out. This chapter 9 could be divided into three parts as the author develops the prayer along the theme of Wisdom as a divine gift. The first two sections center on petitions for wisdom, ‘give me the wisdom that sits by your throne, and do not reject me from among your servants.’ (Wis 9:4); send her forth from the holy heavens and from the throne of your glory send her, that she may be with me and toil at my side and that I may learn what is pleasing to you.’ (Wis 9:10)
Behind this prayer is therefore a realisation of human limitations. Though Solomon has been chosen by God to be King, he needs God’s guidance through His wisdom to be able to function effectively as king. “We can hardly guess at what is on earth and what is at hand we find with labour; but who has traced out what is in the heavens? Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given him wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?”
Today’s passage which is the third part of this prayer follows these previous petitions as a form of meditation. It is still in realisation of the limitations of the human person. Though chosen by God, no man knows what the will of God is for his people. But if God grants the necessary help through wisdom, it will be possible to do what is pleasing to him in guiding the people. Human reasoning is worthless unless guided by the wisdom of God. This passage therefore is a wake up call to everyone to realise that we need the wisdom of God to please him and to truly administer the resources of the earth.
Second reading (Philemon 1-10)
This letter of Paul to Philemon is indeed very short with only one chapter and just twenty-five verses yet it carries so much meaning as it reveals Paul’s mind about how a slave should be treated by a fellow Christian. While some have criticised Paul for not using the opportunity to outrightly condemn slavery as evil, others have also said considering the society at the time, such a message coming from Paul could have caused a revolution that could have tilted either way leading to unnecessary bloodshed as there were as many as 60 million slaves in the empire at the time.
This letter is the only one written by Paul to an individual, that survived into the collection of the New Testament. Other letters were mainly written to communities apart from a few of the Pastoral letters. This letter to Philemon was to address the condition of a run-away slave Onesimus who had found his way to Paul in Rome and had become a Christian. Paul appeals to Philemon on love, to accept Onesimus back but he actually says he would have loved to have Onesimus as he has been useful to him in his chains which he wears for the sake of Christ.
Philemon made his home in Colossae in Asia Minor. Apparently he was wealthy enough to buy the most expensive things of his time. Clearly Philemon owned slaves. But unhappily so did all or, perhaps better, most of the even relatively affluent people of his day. The well-known line that "Rome was built on seven hills and on the backs of seven million slaves" sums up the inhuman situation.
A slave was considered a non-person much as a child in the womb is regarded as such in the law of some nations. What abortion is today to some countries, slavery was to the then Roman Empire. Just as the unborn are called in abortion literature ‘blobs of tissue or flesh,’ so were slaves commonly looked upon as household tools or pack animals.
Story has it that Onesimus eventually returned to Paul and later in life became the Bishop of Ephesus and he was largely responsible for the collection of the letters of Paul which may account for why this letter is part of the collection.
Paul’s appeal, that Onesimus be treated not just as a slave but a brother, is one we need to consider as well in our relationship with those who work with us and for us. The house-helps, drivers, cleaners, junior staff to be sure that we treat everyone with dignity.
Gospel (Luke 14:25-33)
Luke was a native of the ancient city of Antioch in Syria. This was a major trading centre where the inhabitants represented extremes of wealth and poverty--something that was unusual in Israel. The cold-hearted philosophy of power and wealth experienced by Luke in Antioch caused him to be overwhelmed by the contrasting tenderness of the all-powerful God of Israel. Hence his wonderful gospel stories about the mercy of God, e.g. the parable of the prodigal son.
This discovery of God's unconditional love and mercy propels us to that love in a similarly unconditional way. Therefore, all other considerations, such as the claims of relatives or possessions, must be subordinated to the absolute claim of God on those who have discovered his love and mercy.
We are often surprised and made uneasy by the rather shocking language Luke uses in reference to our relationship with family members. In that regard, it should be noted that, "hating" in this context should be understood not as the opposite of loving but in the sense of "preference." This is quite clear in the corresponding text in Matthew's gospel: "He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me" (10:37).
In this gospel reading, the Lord relates two parables on how people consider a major endeavour carefully before undertaking it. One is about a farmer planning the construction of a tower. The other is about a king making plans to go to battle. The point of each parable is that major endeavours demand careful, precise assessment of our abilities to complete the project, or the war, or what-have-you successfully. Major projects are not to be taken lightly. The major venture of our lives is the call to discipleship. Just as a king plans for war or a contractor to build an edifice of some sort, we are called to plan precisely how we will be able to succeed in bringing Christ to the world.
The response to that in practice is to allow our love transcend blood relationship to being brothers and sisters in Christ, not only with the free but even with those in bondage and slavery. That is the cross we have to carry, that is the discipleship we are called to: bringing the good news to the poor, to tell prisoners that they are free, to let the blind have new sight and to set the down trodden free.
Let us pray: God our creator. We have been imprisoned by our passion and greed. Set us free to live for you and to love you and our neighbour as you love us. Amen. May the Almighty God bless you, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen