Every three years I encourage liturgical presiders to have their lectors proclaim Paul's entire letter to Philemon today. It's only 25 verses, much smaller than many of the Lenten gospel passages from John. In the long run it'll save time. You won't have to give lots of background for the passage during your homily.
Though short and directed to just one person, the letter contains a practical application of one of Paul's fundamental faith tenets: God calls us to be free, to break through the limits which normally restrict our relations with other.
The Wisdom author reflects on some of these limits in our first reading. "The deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns." A force in us wants to break out, but our humanity keeps it chained down. There's a dimension in our lives we're never able to express.
For Paul, one of these repressed components revolves around our desire to freely give ourselves to others. We all realize that many of our acts of giving aren't free. We're forced into them, afraid of the consequences which will come our way if we don't do them, worried because we have a reputation to maintain or an image to convey. Freedom rarely is in the mix.
In the Apostle's communication with Philemon, he creates a situation in which both the recipient and the carrier of the letter can freely do something.
Philemon is one of Paul's converts, a wealthy person, a leader in the Christian community in Colossae, and a slave owner. One of his slaves, Onesimus, ran away (after possibly "wreaking some havoc"), and came to Paul, asking, after being baptized, to help him in his ministry. Though most of us in this non-slave era would apply the principle of "possession is 9/10th of the law," Paul operates from the principle of freedom.
He not only sends this letter to Philemon, asking him to freely release his slave and permit him to return to Paul, but he gives the letter to Onesimus to deliver! The slave is freely asking his master for his freedom. What Paul preached, he expected himself and his followers to practice.
We possess no return letter from Philemon to Paul. But since the early church saved and circulated the first half of the correspondence, we presume Philemon freed Onesimus.
For Christians, such free and freeing actions don't happen by accident, or on the spur of the moment. They result from people reflecting deep and long on what it means to share the faith of Jesus: the very point Luke's Jesus brings up in our gospel pericope.
Nothing should stand in the way of our determination to imitate Jesus' dying and rising. "If anyone comes to me without hating father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, and even their own lives, they cannot be my disciple." Though we know the word "hate" in this context is a Semitic exaggeration - not meant to be taken literally - Jesus' message is still clear: "I'm #1; everyone or everything else in your life is #2."
Not everyone can live such a radical existence. That's why Jesus reminds "the crowds" that true discipleship involves lots of planning. If we engage in intense preparation in other levels of our life, we should also do it in those elements which concern our faith.
Without such determined planning, our Christian response to people and situations often depends on "how I feel today." It's precisely from such emotional limits that our faith is geared to free us.