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The Readings

The first reading tonight from Wisdom reminds us that God thinks on a higher plane than we do; we can never assume we have nothing to learn from God.  That will be important in understanding tonight’s message.

The gospel for tonight reminds us that we have to be careful about assuming that our identity comes from how we are socio-economically connected.  That will be key for tonight’s message as well.

But I want to zero in on the second reading this evening.  With our work with Father Dickson’s Cemetery and our concern with the mass incarceration of people of color in the US, this text begs to be unpacked.  This is one of the oldest existing letters that we have from Paul, and it is the shortest.  It is written to one person especially, Philemon.

The Letter to Philemon in Particular

Philemon is apparently a wealthy man in Colossae, who has a large house where the local church meets.  Philemon has at least one slave, Onesimus, a “slave name” which means “useful.”  Sad isn’t it.  Maybe a third of the population in Roman times was enslaved.  They were, as Onesimus’ name suggests, animated tools for their enslavers.

When slaves become  Christian, they are treated as equals within the church; but in terms of their life outside the church, their slavery continues.  Christians were able to see that status distinctions did not count in their relations with one another; but they did not know how to wrap their arms around social change except through violent social upheaval, which they disavowed.  So to be a slave and to be a Christian meant that at least in church circles the slave was “an equal.”

Appealing to Escape Possible Death

If a slave did something wrong, say broke a vase, he/she could be severely punished.  They could appeal, under Roman law[i], by turning to someone who was the social superior to the slave holder.  Onesimus is apparently appealing to Paul, who as an apostle is “socially superior” to Philemon.  (I put “socially superior” in quotes because on the one hand, Paul argues against ranking people; but on the other hand he seems to be “pulling rank” here in his argument for Onesimus’ life.)

Paul is Advocating

This is a letter about Paul stepping in to be an ally of, an advocate for, an enslaved human person who could easily be killed.  Paul flatters Philemon, the slaveholder.  He cajoles him.  He reminds him that in some way Philemon owes his own life to Paul (it is not clear why).  At a time in human consciousness where it was all but impossible to think of “social systems critique,” Paul pushes the envelope as far as one could.  He argues not just that Onesimus be forgiven, and be received back, but that he be freed!  Paul makes it very clear that he does not just want Onesimus to be treated equally “in church” but everywhere in his life.  (See vs. 16, “both in the flesh and in the Lord.”)  Paul says he doesn’t want to coerce Philemon, but instead wants Philemon to do this out of love.  But, perhaps because he is arguing for Onesimus’ life, he wavers.  The letter is written to Philemon, but he wants it read in front of the whole church!  (Social pressure!)  And then in the end, he even expects obedience from Philemon.  (“Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” vs. 21)

Notice the Language

The language that most stands out for me is that Paul refers to Onesimus as his child (a tender reference one would never expect toward a slave and which might mean that Paul is Onesimus’ father in the faith, i.e., baptized him), as his brother (how Paul saw all members of the church, namely as brothers and sisters), as his “heart” (a way of pointing to a deep love he has for this person, Onesimus), and then finally as his very self (“So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” vs. 17)  This is the interior “mind of Christ” awareness that undergirds Paul’s request for freedom.  It is what motivates him—utter respect and love for Onesimus.  This is the nugget, the take-away for us this evening.

Today’s Context

We live in a different time where we are able to do a social critique and to imagine systemic solutions.  But the “mind of Christ” that allows us to look at the enslaved person and to see our child, our sibling, our heart, our very selves is what impels us today to stay motivated in the work of justice.  This is our child who is sitting in an inadequate school.  This is our sibling who has inadequate resources to take on the criminal justice system.  This is our heart that has no access to healthcare.  This is our very self who rummages for food.

We may be called in our lives (that is, we may be shown opportunities and have sense a tug inside us) to champion someone in need—maybe even to “pull rank” as the culture understands rank.  But we do it because we have refused to see this desperate person as on a lower rank than ourselves.  Christ has shown me, as Christ showed Paul, that I am in some deep way not other than this person.  There is a bond, which Christ will not let me forget, which Christ will not let me pretend I do not know.

No, we can never assume we have nothing to learn from God.  And, no, our socio-economic network is not our deepest identity.   We are discovering a thoroughgoing, inner transformation that leads to (and in an amazing way comes from) things like our Communal Work of Service.  This is just where I want to be.  You?


[i] I am getting most of my information about this epistle from Borg and Crossan’s First Paul.  I am also relying on some information at WorkingPreacher.org by Christian A. Eberhart, Professor of New Testament Studies, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

23rd Week of the Year
Sts. Clare & Francis
September 7, 2013
Wisdom 9:13-18
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Casey Konstantín on flickr.com

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