Wisdom 9: 13-18; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14: 25-33
The heart of the readings this weekend really comes from Paul’s letter to Philemon. It’s the only time we ever hear from this letter. It’s most likely the shortest of all of them. It’s also one of the most heartfelt we hear from Paul as he writes on behalf of his friend and brother, Onesimus.
As the reading points out, Onesimus was a slave and at some point had escaped and run away from his rightful owner. In the time of doing that, he not only encounters Paul but he encounters Christ through Paul and now, in the short clip we hear today, he’s pleading on his behalf as Onesimus must now face the consequences of leaving Philemon but he returns in a new way. I’m sure it doesn’t take away the anxiety of the experience of having to return to his master, his owner, but he does return a new man.
His story, though, is also our story. Like Onesimus, we begin to believe everything we want to tell ourselves about ourselves, even in his case, that his whole identity is a slave and this clouds the way he relates to everyone. He sees everything through that lens. Over the course of his time with Paul, Onesimus begins to learn that there is more to himself than just the fact that he is a slave. Now certainly he will return to Philemon remaining a slave, but no consequence, despite his own anxiety, can stand in the way of what he has found in his time with Paul and his encounter with Christ. No, we may never understand Onesimus entirely, but we can begin to think that all we do and all we tell ourselves is true of who we are. Like him we begin to believe that all there is to us is that we’re a priest, or a teacher, or a doctor, or for that matter, mother or father. Yes, they are roles we play. Owner is a role Philemon plays and it too taints his lens in the way he relates to Onesimus. But there’s more to all of us.
Now it is rather bizarre, this gospel we hear today, when Jesus seems to once again throw some strange stuff our way. I got to say, if he were running for president he’d probably have to hire a new campaign manager after the past few weeks! But when he speaks about hating father and mother, brother and sister, he’s not meaning it in the way that we use that word. Even in our families we can fall into our roles, but we know as we get older that even the way we relate to them should change and grow with us. Jesus is gently trying to lead the disciples to this place of context in their own lives, all these relationships in the context of their relationship with him and with God.
Like Paul’s own conversion story, scales often must fall from our eyes and hearts before we can begin to let go of, what Solomon tells us in the first reading today, that which we find within our grasp we find with difficulty. What’s more difficult than the relationships that we encounter in our lives, especially when we can’t move to that deeper place and see the other on a deeper level, through the eternal, in Christ. If you’re going to commit yourself to the relationship to Christ, then you do it with your whole heart. He warns of doing it with half a heart in the telling of these stories today.
Even in our most basic of relationships, we learn to let go of what we think that they should be. It’s again what Paul helps Onesimus discover in his own life, even in the way he relates to himself. He no longer has to see himself as slave, but rather as friend and brother. Paul’s prayer is that Philemon can and will do the same upon the return of Onesimus. Yet, in the end, it no longer matters to Onesimus because he has found the eternal and grows in deepening that relationship with Paul and in and through Christ.
It’s not just the material possessions that we so often need to let go of in our lives. Quite honestly, that’s the easy stuff. There’s so much we have convinced ourselves that we need that not only get in the way of our relationship with Christ but the people around us. The question we so often need to ask ourselves is what and even who is possessing us? That’s the much more difficult question for all of us. All too often we can find ourselves in a relationship like Philemon and Onesimus, thinking we own another and possess them or vice versa. That stands in the way of the eternal. We are possessed by our thoughts, our ideas, our fears and anxieties. They stand in the way of moving to the deeper reality of our lives. We are so often possessed by our should’ve’s, could’ve’s, and would’ve’s. They most certainly stand in the way of encountering the eternal and the deeper reality of our lives.
What and who is it that is possessing us these days? Like Onesimus, we pray for an encounter with Paul, an encounter with Christ in our lives that we can learn to let them go so that we not only grow in our relationship with Christ, but we begin to grow in our relationship with the other, no longer seeing them through the lens we’ve created for ourselves, but like Paul as brother, sister, and friend.