twenty third sunday in ordinary time reflection (C)
First Reading: Wisdom 9:13-18 Responsorial: Psalm 90: Second Reading: Philemon 9-10, 12-17 Gospel Passage: Luke 14:25-33
'Wisdom of Heart' by Msgr. Richard Henning
Historians estimate that somewhere between one-third and one-half of the population in the Roman Empire consisted of slaves. We might look on that past with horror at the injustice of slavery, but for the people of ancient times, slavery was an ordinary and ever present part of their reality and a crucial component of their civilization and social order.
In his letter to Philemon, Paul addressed the fate of one slave, Onesimus, the runaway slave of a Christian leader, Philemon. Subsequently, Onesimus met Paul, converted to Christianity, and became an important assistant to Paul. Paul’s task in writing to Philemon was a delicate one. The punishment for runaway slaves was severe. If Philemon did not punish the offense, other slaves might run away. Neighbors or officials might accuse Philemon of undermining the social order. But Paul avoided the larger questions of slavery and society and cast his argument in very personal terms. He reminded Philemon that both Onesimus and Philemon are Paul’s “sons” by baptism – and that they are therefore brothers. While we might prefer that Paul issued a ringing denunciation of slavery, Paul challenged Philemon to a conversion of the heart that was more effective than any debate about social conditions.
Scholars believe that Wisdom was written in the Greek language in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in the last century before Christ. Alexandria was then a cosmopolitan city and a crossroads of culture, religion and ideas. Its inhabitants shared a passion for knowledge of the world and for philosophical debate. The author of Wisdom knew those debates and used the philosophical language of his day to consider the nature of human existence from the Jewish perspective. In a city where Jews would have experienced intense pressure to surrender their faith and blend in with the larger society, the Book of Wisdom warned them against putting “faith” in human knowledge, calling for a sense of humility and awe before the Wisdom of God.
It is difficult for us to understand the cultural significance of crucifixion in Jesus’ day. The people of the Roman world, Jew and Gentile, looked with abject horror upon this cruel instrument of Roman oppression. The victims of this form of execution were often the lowest and most reviled in society. The process of crucifixion stripped them of their humanity, disfiguring and humiliating them in the extreme.
In the passage from Luke, Jesus instructs His disciples to calculate the cost of discipleship. And He presents the cost in the starkest of terms. Even if Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow has not yet been literally fulfilled, even the metaphor would have horrified His listeners. Likewise in a culture that placed all emphasis on family bonds, His demand that discipleship come even before family obligations would have added to the confusion of many listeners. Did some of His disciples imagine that if they were in on His movement early in the process, they or their families would reap some benefit – being close to the throne, as it were? If they did, His words here would have shattered the illusion that discipleship produces worldly dividends. As Jesus spoke these words, He journeyed resolutely towards Calvary and demonstrated His willingness to pay any price for our salvation. His demand is that disciples respond with similar passion for self-emptying love.
There are times when we speak of the obligations placed upon us by the life of faith and the struggle to live God’s commandments. Certainly by the standards of our culture and world, living in accord with God’s will is more likely to bring challenges than luxury. But we have misunderstood if we think that God’s will is about imposing some alien authority on unruly children. What God desires is the free gift of ourselves in trust and love. And that gift brings us more than rules, it brings us to our truest human selves – the very creatures that God has made us to be.
In asking freedom for Onesimus, Paul was also offering liberation to Philemon. He would lose a slave and gain a brother. In challenging the cultural presumptions of its day, the Book of Wisdom did not condemn the human search for knowledge, it gave it proper perspective, warning of the risk of arrogance and self-satisfaction. Even the harsh demands spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke are really an invitation to the transformation of the heart. He teaches more than a kingdom perspective, by words and example, He reveals the power of divine love and the “wisdom of heart” praised by the Psalmist.