Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Twenty Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: Vexing Questions with a Simple Answer
Perhaps, we can call this “Vexing Sunday.” Two of the three readings for this week are really confounding. In the second reading Paul writes a rich Christian named Philemon whose slave, Onessimus, had run away and joined Paul in Rome. Paul sends Onessimus back to Philemon with a letter asking Philemon to accept Onessimus as both a slave and as a brother Christian. Is Paul endorsing slavery here? Why didn’t Paul let Onessimus stay with him? Would Paul have done the same if Onessimus had been a slave who would be worked to death on a farm, in a quarry or in a mine? If these events took place in nineteenth century America and Onessimus had escaped from a plantation, would Paul have sent him back to
pick cotton for Philemon?
And if this reading isn’t hard enough the first part of today’s gospel presents us with Jesus saying, “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.” What happened to the Fourth Commandment, Honor Your Father and Your Mother? And does Jesus really want us to hate ourselves?
To get the answers to these questions, we have to begin with the fundamental truth of Christianity. Jesus Christ is the Eternal Son of the Father, true God from true God. He is the center of the universe. For the Christian, truth takes its meaning from Jesus. For the Christian, life takes its meaning from Jesus. Everything that matters flows from Him and returns back to Him. Jesus then unites us with the totality of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
With that understood, even slavery is secondary to the relationship with Christ. Onessimus had escaped from being a slave to Philemon. But Onessimus had become a Christian. Philemon was also Christian. What should matter is their mutual union with Christ and their union with each other as brothers in Christ. Now, Philemon, as a Christian, was required to treat Onessimus charitably. There were various types of slaves in the Roman Empire. Some slaves were seen as part of the owner’s family. Others were mere manual labors, often worked to death. A Christian couldn’t own a slave like that, even in the first centuries of the Church. A Christian could not treat another person like the plantation owners of the American South treated their slaves. A Christian could not divide up a slave’s family, and treat the slave’s children as slaves. Onessimus was not a slave like that. He was a family slave. He served Philemon’s household. In the Roman empire, many slaves in Onessimus’s position could marry and have a family, make money outside of their service to their masters, and even buy their own freedom.
This might be difficult for us to understand in our culture, but in the world of first century Rome, Onessimus, the slave, had offended Philemon, the master, by running away. That is why Paul sent him back. Even worse, Onessimus may have stolen from Philemon. He may have taken the silverware or something. If that were the case, Paul offered to repay Philemon from his own pocket. As far as Paul was concerned, what really mattered was not that Onessimus was a slave. What mattered was Onessimus’ relationship to Jesus Christ. This was something that Philemon needed to respect, as he welcomed Onessimus back into his home. For Onessimus was more than a slave; he was a brother in Christ.
What matters is the relationship we have with Jesus Christ. The first part of today’s Gospel must be understood in this context. A relationship with another person takes its value in how that relationship reflects the relationship with Jesus Christ. The relationship to the Lord is the fundamental relationship a Christian must have. When Jesus says, “Hate your mother and father,” and so forth, He is not telling people to disregard the Fourth Commandment. He is telling them to understand the Fourth Commandment in the light of their relationship to Him. If parents or relatives, children and even if one’s own self are more important to a person than Jesus Christ, then Christ is not the center of that person’s life. Nothing and no one can stand between the Christian and his Savior.
All relationships have their value in their ability to lead us to Jesus Christ. A marriage relationship takes its value in the ways that each spouse becomes the other’s path to salvation. Husbands and wives need to find Jesus through each other. People looking to marry need to pray to God to send them a man or woman who can lead them to Christ. I once heard a man mention that he always says a prayer over his wife before he leaves for work. Often she is still sleeping due to a long night with the baby or one of the children. (Young ladies and young men, if you ever meet someone who wants to pray with you and for you and over you every day, you need to consider marrying that person.)
In distinct contrast to this, a Christian should avoid a relationship where God is not present, particularly if conscious efforts are made by the other person to exclude God from the relationship. If a relationship takes a turn to actions where God is not present, then the Christian needs to stop the relationship before becoming swept up into it. Perhaps this Christian needs to ask, “If God is not here, then what am I doing here?”
Parents need to love their children and children need to love their parents. The great fear that all Christian parents have is that they might consciously do things to lead their children away from the Lord instead of to the Lord. Children cannot obey parents who are leading them to sin. St. Lucy, St. Agnes and so many others accepted martyrdom rather than being forced by their parents into sinful lives. Nor can parents allow their children to destroy their own spiritual lives. For example, a parent cannot allow a Teen or an adult child to convince them to compromise their own faith and morals. If either of these were to take place, a parent leading a child away from Christ, or a child demanding a parent relinquish Christ, this would demonstrate that Christ is not the center of the parent-child relationship. But when parents lead their children to Christ, and when children point out Christ’s life to their parents, then Christ is the center of the relationship. These loving parents and these loving children are in fact loving Christ.
Psychologists tell us, rightly so, that we need to love ourselves. In the Church we continually remind people that every person brings a unique reflection of God to the world. But there are aspects of our lives that do not reflect God. It is right to hate those parts of ourselves that tempt us to push God out of our lives. We cannot love these and still love Jesus Christ. St. Augustine put it this way: “For he loves you too little, Lord, who loves along with you anything else that he does not love for your sake.”
Jesus demands that He be the center of every aspect of our lives. What is right? What is wrong? Which relationships are good? Which are evil? People ask these type of questions all the time. The answers they are looking for can be found in the simple answer to this question: Is Jesus present in this
action, in this relationship?
So that difficult gospel really has a simple message: We need to hate all that keeps us from the Lord and love all that brings us closer to Him.
This takes courage. This takes carrying our crosses and following our Lord.