Onesimus, though not a Christian, had hoped to gain some advantage by persuading an honoured Christian teacher, Paul of Tarsus, to intercede with Philemon, a Christian, whose slave he was. Onesimus’ initial confidence in his owner’s friend and “partner” clearly bore fruit, for Paul, having first guided him to become a Christian, then offered to make good whatever loss Philemon might have suffered by Onesimus’ flight. On this basis, Paul appealed to Philemon to receive his slave back into his household as he would receive Paul himself.
Neither Greek nor Roman slavery was usually a permanent state. Most commonly, an owner granted freedom to a faithful slave as a reward for his or her work and loyalty; this was frequently done by the owner’s will at death. While owners could punish disloyal slaves by including in their wills a clause prohibiting the heirs from ever letting them go, there is also much evidence that others, while still living, had a variety of reasons for choosing to set free some of their slaves, not infrequently about the age of thirty. Thus the question regarding Onesimus was most likely when, not if, Philemon planned to set him free.
The main features distinguishing 1st century slavery from that later practiced in the New World are the following: racial factors played no role; education was greatly encouraged (some slaves were better educated than their owners) and it enhanced a slave’s value; many slaves carried out sensitive and highly responsible social functions; slaves could own property (including other slaves!); their religious and cultural traditions were the same as those of the freeborn; no laws prohibited public assembly of slaves; and (perhaps above all) the majority of urban and domestic slaves could legitimately anticipate becoming free persons.
You will have noticed, I am sure, that Paul, in our second reading, was not like our modern "human rights" promoters and protagonists. Neither was Peter in his first letter where he writes (2:18-21):
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable: if, because of conscience toward God, one endures grief suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer -- if you take it patiently -- this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.
Now, I do not, in any way wish to detract from the noble work done by many good people for the human rights of the underprivileged and needy, however, there is something we should understand about the unwillingness of St. Paul, and indeed St. Peter, to adopt such an attitude with regard to the public institution of slavery in the situation of the early Church.
Perhaps we should note, first of all and just in passing, that there are some people who will promote good causes for reasons which, at times, are not so worthy as the causes they are promoting. For example, some will promote a good cause because, basically, they like a good fight, in which case they are not so much promoters as protagonists; others love to see their own ideas, their own opinions, prevail, and to that extent they promote others' rights only in order to express their own ego, exert their own talents, or to extend their own sphere of influence.
However, there are indeed many who promote human rights from good motives and with the right intentions. Then why not Peter, why not Paul, with regard to the social institution of slavery? This is worth considering because we can perhaps learn, from both Peter and Paul, why so much apparently being said and done today, nevertheless, and despite many a fanfare of official praise and media proclamation, seems to bring forth little or no good fruit. Surely it is one of societies' most anxious questions today why so much apparently well-intentioned legislation and so many, much-trumpeted, positive measures taken in society, are seemingly quite unable to stem the slide into ever-greater indiscipline, lawlessness, moral decadence, and even rank corruption?
In our Gospel reading you heard Our Blessed Lord declare:
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.
Our Blessed Lord unequivocally demands that we put Him first in our lives. And, indeed, since He only wants this in order that we might thereby be enabled to live before God in Spirit and in truth, and to love and serve each other aright, He goes on to show the folly of those who would seek discipleship on any other terms:
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. Which of you, wishing to construct a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work, the onlookers should laugh at him and say, 'This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.'
Jesus takes this stand because He knows that if He Himself is not first in our lives, sin will, inevitably, continue to rule there. And the empire of sin is never stagnant. And when men -- ignoring or attempting to deny the existence of personal and public sin -- pretend, of their own assumed wisdom and presumed goodness, to prescribe remedies for deep social sicknesses, their tragic misunderstanding of human nature only compounds the suffering by deepening social confusion and anxiety, and inviting individuals’ hopelessness and despair.
St. Peter and St. Paul, however, faithfully put Jesus first, not only in the letters they wrote but in their whole life and work, above all, in their work of establishing the Church as the Body of Christ. The Church was being newly born, so to speak, into an alien world, and the very first thing Christians had to understand was that, by living their new lives with unwavering faith in Jesus and full confidence in the strength and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they could now transcend and would ultimately transform their earthly situation. This new, God-given faith – being, as Jesus Himself put it, like the pearl of great price and the treasure found with great joy in the field – was known by the Apostles to be of such supreme value that they could in no way allow it to be subjected to worldly considerations or made secondary to earthly values. For those blessed with the gift of faith even the bonds of slavery could in no way be allowed to overshadow the joy of their personal relationship with Christ or inhibit their commitment to and confidence in the power of His Spirit, whereby the lowest and least fortunate, the most despised and worst abused, could work in and for the Church as much and as well as all others, confident that their faith could empower them to joyfully order their lives so as to bear effective witness to Christ and bring about the ultimate triumph of His Spirit. In those early Christian house-churches there was no distinction between slaves and free, all were equally slaves of the Lord Jesus, and all were totally committed to and equally important for the triumph of the Kingdom of God over the pagan empire of Rome. Indeed, such was their confidence that even direct opposition and persecution by the imperial power came to be seen as no insuperable obstacle to the new Faith. However, since such a power could not be openly confronted Peter and Paul therefore considered it their main duty to teach Christian disciples how to rightly worship the Father, in and through Jesus, and to live each day by the light of His truth in the power of His Spirit, thus growing ever more calm and assured in their Christian confidence and love.
That is still of supreme importance for us modern disciples of Jesus; for, if our Christian witness is to be effective before the world, He, Jesus, has to be first in our lives, not our good works, social influence, or personal popularity, :
Love the Lord your God with all your Heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. (Mark 12:30-31)
At this, the most basic and most important level, however, many Catholics are failing grievously today. For example, all too often they come to Mass not in a spirit of loving obedience, but in compliance with an unwelcome obligation or out of sheer habit: at best, in order to receive Communion. Now, the supreme reason for our attendance at Mass should always be a will and a desire to personally encounter God in Jesus, worshipping the Father in the only acceptable way, that is, through Jesus: at holy Mass offering Jesus’ self-sacrifice on Calvary -- and ourselves with Him -- by the Spirit, to the glory of God the Father.
Moreover, that intention to worship the Father should always be imbued with and embrace a desire to know Him and to follow Jesus ever better. That is why, at Mass, the Scriptures are read and a homily given: because God's Word is, as Jesus Himself said, our bread of life. And yet, many Catholics do not appreciate it!
And so, the ultimate reason why our modern society is failing, and why Government initiatives fall so short of producing the sort of society we all want, is shown us by Our Lord's words at the end of our Gospel reading:
Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.
Here Jesus is speaking as the supreme doctor of human souls, seeking to find out what are the possessions that have taken possession of us, and what, by wrongfully possessing us, thereby harm and lessen us.
There are some who seem to be willing to endure hardship, suffering, and opposition, and even to go so far as to hate their own life, for Jesus. And yet, despite all that, there remains something that is still theirs, something that modern man and woman find hardest of all to give up, which defines the essence of their own personal identity and being, namely, their own opinion, their own will, their own reputation. So many apparently good Catholics, good Christians, fail God and the Church, indeed, fail themselves and the world too, because, deep down, they are not willing to give up their own self-approval and that of others. That apparently little something is so often held back in their offering to Jesus, and through Him, to the Father, with the result that they have, at every serious juncture in life and in every time of trial, to review once again their own belonging to Him and His Church, to re-negotiate, so to speak, their own agreement with Him and His Church; and only after significant hesitation and delay, will they feel themselves able to accept anew the costs involved and signal their continuing but conditional commitment. Now to such people, Jesus declares without any concession:
No one, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:62)
People of God, having ourselves been most wonderfully blessed in Jesus and in the Church, and yet, on the other hand, being faced with the ravages of sin bringing shame upon the Church and turmoil and catastrophic suffering all over the world, we should strive to live our lives ever more and more with Jesus for the Father. Ultimately, the only life worth living for a human being is one of loving gratitude and joyous commitment to the glory of God the Father, in union with Jesus our Lord, under the rule and power of the Holy Spirit. Only by faithfully walking along that way can we hope to find the fullness of being for which we long. As the first reading said:
(Only when You) sent your Holy Spirit from on high were the paths of those on earth made straight and mortals taught what pleases you.