23rd. Sunday Year (C)
(Wisdom 9:13-18; Letter to Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33)
Onesimus, though not a Christian, had hoped to gain some advantage by persuading an honoured Christian teacher, Paul of Tarsus, to intercede for him with Philemon -- a Christian -- whose slave he was. Onesimus’ initial confidence in his owner’s friend and “partner” (biblical word) clearly bore fruit, for Paul, having first guided him to become a Christian, then offered to intercede with Philemon and make good whatever loss he might have suffered by Onesimus’ flight. On this basis, Paul appealed to Philemon to receive his slave back into his household, still as his slave indeed, but 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 their 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 direct role; education was at times greatly appreciated (some slaves were better educated than their owners), moreover it enhanced a slave’s value. Many slaves carried out sensitive and highly responsible social functions; slaves could own property (including other slaves!); and (above all) the majority of urban and domestic slaves could reasonably anticipate becoming free persons.
You will have noticed 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:
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 to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps. (2:18-21)
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. This is worth considering because we can perhaps learn why so much apparently being said and done in our world and our society today, despite many a fanfare of official proclamation and media praise, seems to bring forth little permanent 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:
Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.
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 there unequivocally and most provocatively 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 ridicule 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.'
That Jesus did not want to be a popular leader, whimsically chosen and cheered by His followers and inevitably involved in political and social matters, is unmistakably clear. He wanted and willed to be, exclusively, Lord and Leader, sovereign in the mind and heart of any and of all searching for God in Spirit and Truth. He took this stand because He knew that if He Himself is not first in our lives, sin will inevitably continue to rule there; and since the empire of sin is never stagnant, when men -- ignoring or attempting to deny the existence of personal and public sin -- pretend, on the basis of their own assumed wisdom or presumed goodness, to prescribe remedies for deep human and social sicknesses, their tragically proud misunderstanding of human nature and its needs can, only too frequently, compound the suffering by aggravating social confusion and public anxiety, and deepening 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, however, in their work of establishing the Church as the Body of Christ and our Mother. The Church was being newly born into a pagan world, and the very first thing Catholics needed to learn and possess was peace and confidence in their faith. They had to understand 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 and hidden again in the field – was known by the Apostles to be of such supreme value that they could not allow it to be subjected to worldly considerations or made secondary to any earthly values whatever. Those blessed with the gift of faith should in no way allow even the bonds of slavery to overshadow the joy of their personal relationship with Jesus their Lord and Saviour, 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 Satan and 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, such a power could not be openly confronted and provoked, and therefore Peter and Paul considered it their main duty to teach Christian believers how, in peace and tranquillity, to rightly worship the Father as His adopted children in and through Jesus, living each day in the light of His truth by the power of His Spirit, and thus growing ever more calm and assured in their possession of Catholic faith, understanding, and love, in the God-given shelter most deliberately prepared for them by Jesus in the form of His Church, no mere building or organization, but our Mother uniquely able to bestow on us Jesus’ most precious gifts and indeed His own Personal and Eucharistic presence.
Today we are in a similar situation. Mother Church is no longer (Deo gratias!) hand-in-glove with the State and so she should not be expected to always have and publicly ‘push’ (i.e. against the secular power) her own teachings and criticisms as alternative political opinions and public options. It is good Catholics who should provoke and confront political parties and their leaders with proposals, policies, and principals imbued with the Christian teaching they have learned from Mother Church; it is not for Mother Church herself to be constantly invoked or expected to directly embroil herself repeatedly in social questions and quarrels, with the result that she no longer has the time, awareness, or zeal, to inspire her own people with the eternal Truths and heavenly Beauty of Jesus Himself and the incomparable Good News He brings for mankind’s salvation.
In the nascent Church great Bishops, such as Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, and Cyril of Alexandria proclaimed and ‘argued for’ Christian teachings unknown to the pagan world around them; in the developing Christian world Thomas Aquinas, Ignatius, and Dominic, strove likewise to make Catholic and Christian teaching better understood and practised. But today we live in a post-Catholic and post-Christian world where Catholic teaching has been and is largely rejected and now ignored by ruling powers, and it is not any longer profitable for bishops to be called upon or themselves seek to repeat what is no longer listened to, let alone appreciated. Bishops always sound doctrinal and the secular authorities have no inclination or desire to be taught, or to enter into doctrinal discussions that no longer interest them. What is now much more important is for Catholic lay figures, politically able and inclined, to put forward Catholic teachings not as doctrinal teaching but as human issues, as the anti-abortionists have been doing for so long.
Mother Church’s teaching is, of its very nature, public, as Jesus Himself said:
I have spoken publicly to the world. I have always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews gather, and in secret I have said nothing. (John 18:20)
Her children, therefore, that is those ‘vocationally’ called as potential public figures should, first of all, make her presentation of Jesus’ teaching part of their own mind and make-up and then as yeast for their personal and public, political and social, endeavours and involvement; they should not try to involve Mother Church directly in order to ‘bolster and add weight’ to their projects, for too often that tends to make bishops (or other Church spokespeople) appear to be imbued with the political animus and ‘know how’ to a greater extent than they should be, while making Mother Church herself appear, to an alienated world, more like an ever-recurring nuisance and ‘always right’ antagonist, rather than a respected and wise source of understanding, help, and possible guidance.
Dear People of God, if our Christian witness is to be ultimately effective before the world, Jesus has to become first in every aspect of our lives, not our own good works, not our social influence, nor least of all, our 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)
Having ourselves been most wonderfully blessed in Jesus and in the Church, and now, 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 must strive to live our lives ever more and more with Jesus for the Father. Ultimately, as we well know, the only life fully 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 their Most Holy Spirit. That awareness and conviction, however, is not something that can be in any way convincingly argued, especially -- as I have said -- in a post-Christian political and social set-up where so many are childishly luxuriating in their imagined freedom from all moral restraints as they temporarily delight in what the world seems to be so benignly offering them. The authentic Christian vision of human life in its ultimate and eternal fullness and fulfilment can only be found in Mother Church’s doctrinal teaching drawn up for her children and for all who may want to learn from her; but our present partial experience of that ultimate fulfilment is to be witnessed to by all of us who are her faithful children, living, loving, working, and if and when necessary suffering, for the privilege of being able to tread along the God-given way to that eternal fullness of being for which we were originally created, which is now most assuredly promised us, and for which we whole-heartedly 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 in Christ Jesus our Lord.