Who can know God’s counsel,
or who can conceive what the LORD intends?
For 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.
And scarce do we guess the things on earth,
and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty;
but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?
Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.
I, Paul, an old man,
and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus,
urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus,
whose father I have become in my imprisonment;
I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.
I should have liked to retain him for myself,
so that he might serve me on your behalf
in my imprisonment for the gospel,
but I did not want to do anything without your consent,
so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.
Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while,
that you might have him back forever,
no longer as a slave
but more than a slave, a brother,
beloved especially to me, but even more so to you,
as a man and in the Lord.
So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus,
and he turned and addressed them,
“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.
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.’
Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?
But if not, while he is still far away,
he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.
In the same way,
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.”
One of the shortest books in the Christian Scriptures packs one of the biggest wallops. Paul’s letter to Philemon isn’t long enough to have chapters, yet its message has challenged Christians for almost 2,000 years.
The Apostle was faced with a unique problem when he dictated these few lines and mailed them to his old friend, a problem with which none of us today (hopefully) will ever have to deal: a runaway slave. Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had not only escaped from his master’s house after destroying some of his property, but eventually he ran to Paul, expecting the Apostle to protect him. Does he keep him or return him? The problem becomes even more complicated when Onesimus converts to Christianity and Paul baptizes him.
Obviously our faith had not yet evolved to the point where slavery, as such, would be unconditionally prohibited. (That wouldn’t happen for about another 1,800 years!) That’s why it’s important to note the principles Paul employs to come to a conclusion. He couldn’t just check the latest papal documents or look up some conciliar decrees. He didn’t even have a catechism to flip through to find the answer.
It’s clear that he basically agrees with the Wisdom author that our first moral principle is always to do “what Yahweh intends.” But as we hear in today’s reading, at times that’s hard to do. “Scarce do we guess the things on earth . . . ,” the author reflects, “but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?” Such certainty can come only from Yahweh’s holy spirit. Without that force in our daily lives, the paths of those on earth could never be made straight.
Luke’s Jesus presumes we must be completely committed to that spirit. Nothing – or no one – can be more important than that commitment, not even life itself. And it’s certainly not something that comes easy. It can take as much planning as building a tower or waging a war. We simply can’t be other Christs without it. There’s no other way to daily carry our cross.
Perhaps the first principle Paul operates from is Jesus’ – and modern moral theologians’ - belief that whatever we do, we do freely. Things done from force or fear don’t count toward our eternal salvation. As difficult as it might to achieve such freedom, the Apostle expects both Philemon and Onesimus to have no force or fear in whatever they do. That means he first respectfully asks Philemon to free Onesimus and permit him to help Paul. But on the other hand, he also expects Onesimus to freely return to his former owner and permit himself to again be in his power before he asks for his release. In each case, Philemon could freely say, “No!” just as Onesimus could freely say, “I’m not going back!”
Since this letter is in our biblical canon, we presume both said yes. But there’s no way to definitively prove that. It’s an essential part of carrying our cross that we create situations in which people are free to do the unpredictable. With such a commitment to freedom it was only a matter of (a long) time before slavery would be condemned by the church.
But Paul is also guided by his belief that, once baptized, we each become a new creation. So according to his theology, Onesimus is just as much a free person as Philemon, and Philemon is just as much a slave as Onesimus. We’re all one.
Perhaps one of the reasons we’re more comfortable in just following rules and regulations instead of making decisions based on Christian principles is that there’s much less personal dying in the rules and regulation. Someone else already made the decision for us.