It would help our Eucharistic communities today to tell our lectors to put aside the lectionary when it comes time for the second reading, pick up a Bible and proclaim Paul’s entire letter to Philemon. I’ve found through the years that it takes far less time to read the whole 25 verse letter than it takes for me to explain how the 9 verses of our liturgical selection fit into the context of the other 16 verses.
Philemon is by far the shortest and most personal of Paul’s seven authentic letters. Yet it conveys a message which goes to the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Philemon is a wealthy convert of Paul; Onesimus, his runaway slave. Not only did Onesimus escape, he seems to have destroyed some of Philemon’s property in the process. Then he compounds an already bad situation by finding Paul and asking the Apostle to let him be his personal servant. The letter demonstrates how Paul handles this tricky set of circumstances.
You and I, appalled by the now-banned institution of slavery, would probably phone Philemon, demanding to know how, as a disciple of Jesus, he could actually own another human being, and informing him we were going to do our best to free this hapless individual from his clutches.
There’s just one problem to our solution: Christian morality had yet to evolve that far during Paul’s ministry. Though the Apostle insists owners treat their slaves humanely, he’s still to reach the moral point most Christians would reach over the next 1700 years when they finally called for slavery’s abolition.
Yet, the method Paul employs to address this problematic situation would turn out to be one of the reasons behind today’s Christian rejection of slavery. As we know from his other letters, Paul was “taken” by the experience of freedom which comes when anyone gives himself or herself over to the faith of Jesus. Such freedom enabled Christians to break through many of the restrictions which enslave people to their everyday human customs, traditions, and practices.
We clearly hear about that human enslavement in today’s first reading. “The corruptible body,” the Wisdom author notes, “burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.” in other words, our human condition provides few occasions for freedom.
Yet, the situation changes for followers of Jesus. Luke’s Jesus promises his followers that, by imitating him, they’ll be free enough to make life-changing decisions, in today’s gospel pericope, he presumes his followers will make a deliberate choice to follow or not follow him, and freely accept the consequences of carrying his cross, especially those that revolve around our relations with the people closest to us. We’re just as free in these relations as someone choosing to build or not build a tower, fight a war or sue for peace.
Knowing about this quest for freedom helps us better appreciate Paul’s solution to his Philemon/Onesimus predicament. He simply demands each party make a free decision in the matter. The Apostle not only sends this letter to Philemon requesting he freely relinquish his rights over Onesimus, but he entrusts the letter to Onesimus! The runaway slave freely returns to the scene of his crime to deliver a letter asking a slave owner to freely release the slave who’s standing directly in front of him.
Today’s moral theologians always remind us that unless an action - good or bad - is free, it has no bearing on our eternal salvation. Having read today’s three readings, it seems our sacred authors have been pointing this out for a long time.