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SEPTEMBER 8, 2013: TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Wisdom 9:13-18b
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Luke 14:25-33

Biblical people of faith are expected to commit themselves to the unknown, to give themselves over for an entire lifetime to something and someone they can't totally understand.

The Wisdom author supplies us with the obvious reason for this unique commitment. "Who can know God's counsel, or who can conceive what Yahweh intends? For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans." Those who give themselves over to God are in for a wild ride. That's why we should be certain we understand what we're buying into before we ever enter into such an agreement.

The gospel Jesus certainly didn't want his followers to blindly imitate his commitment to Yahweh, and then politely bow out once they discovered all its implications. "Which of you," he asks, "wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost...? Or what king, marching into battle, would not first sit down and decide...?"

This Galilean carpenter isn't interested in construction techniques or military strategies. He's simply concerned with how dedicated his followers are to becoming other Christs. As today's passage states, neither family relations nor possessions can block the road he and his disciples travel to Jerusalem: the place where both he and his followers will die and rise.

None of Luke's readers could be certain where his or her personal Jerusalem would be, or what exact death they would have to endure. That was part of the suffering they were expected to experience. They were to say, "Yes!" before they knew the price.

It's clear from our Philemon pericope that this Christian slave owner had no idea of all the implications of his commitment to the risen Jesus. Paul was expecting him to go down a road he'd never before traveled.

This shortest of Paul's seven authentic letters deals with a touchy subject. Onesimus, one of Philemon's slaves had not only escaped and sought protection from Paul, he had "wreaked some havoc" in fleeing from his master's house. Philemon obviously expects the slave's immediate return and payment for the damages.

But the Apostle reminds his former convert that, because of his unique relationship with the risen Christ, he now has a unique relationship with everyone around him, even Onesimus. He's "no longer a slave, but more than a slave, a brother ...." I seriously wonder if, before now, Philemon understood this exact implication of being another Christ. Though Paul's in no way a 19th century abolitionist, he's certainly laying the groundwork for those who believed all slavery should be abolished.

Yet Paul doesn't want to force Philemon's hand. He expects him to freely release the slave and permit him to become his servant. If one freely commits oneself to God's will, then all the other actions which are a daily part of that commitment must also be free. Paul has a unique way of guaranteeing that freedom for both the slave owner and the slave. The letter carrier doesn't have to ask for directions to Philemon's house. Onesimus himself will deliver the letter requesting his freedom!

If Onesimus is free enough to put himself back into Philemon's hands, will Philemon freely hand him over to Paul? We presume he did - else this letter wouldn't have been saved.

But at the same time, we can't but notice the new areas in which both the slave and master have been led because of their faith in the risen Jesus. Each could have echoed the Wisdom author's rhetorical question, "Who knows what God intends?"

Perhaps all people of faith, especially we Catholics, should still be asking that same question today.