23rd Sunday: Free to Love.
A slave is returned to his Master, still a slave in the Roman society, but now free to be a brother in Christ. In the second reading for today, from Paul shortest letter, a note to a wealthy Christian named Philemon, Paul sends Philemon’s escaped slave back to his master. The slave, who is named Onesimus, had become a Christian in Rome while Paul was being held under a sort of house arrest. He revealed to Paul that he had escaped from Philemon’s service. He may even have stolen something from his master, we can’t be sure of this. Paul asks Philemon to take Onesimus back, but not just as an escaped slave but as a fellow Christian. Being a Christian was and is infinitely more important than social status, even if that status is slavery. It is not that St. Paul is endorsing slavery. He is simply noting that something is more important than whether one is a slave or not. And that something, or better Someone, is Jesus Christ.
We are all slaves in the world, but we are free in Christ. There are many things that enslave us. Some are sinful, some are temptations, all are nuisances. We are all enslaved by our own selfishness and pride. We want to put ourselves first. Our very society drills us to “take care of number one.” But Christ frees us from that. He tells us to love God first, and then others as ourselves.
We all suffer from our own pride. We are concerned that we get the proper respect from our classmates, our family, our workmates, and people in the world. We find confession difficult because it makes us face up to our own failings. Christ frees us from pride by teaching us that we need to trust in God, not in our own abilities. He has the answers. He is the Answer.
“Who can know God’s counsel or conceive what God intends?” the first reading from the Book of Wisdom asks. We cannot provide ourselves with the Wisdom of God. He gives us His Wisdom.
We are enslaved by our sinfulness. We often give into temptation, and then behave in a way we don’t want to behave. St. Paul wrote in the seventh chapter of the Letter to the Romans: “I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The desire to do good is there, but the doing of good is not. I do not do the good I want to do but the evil that I do not want to do.” “Who can deliver me from this mortal body,” he cries. And then he provides God’s Answer: we are delivered through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let’s make this concrete: perhaps, we have a quick temper. It doesn’t take much to push our buttons and Vesuvius erupts. And then we feel terrible because we do not want to be like that. The more we focus on Christ, though, the more effort we put into treating others as Christ would treat them. When this happens it is harder for others to push our buttons. It is Christ who is conquering our anger because we are determined to follow Him. Perhaps we are inclined to give into some of the immoral aspects of our society. We always think that we are stronger than we are. But we fail over and over again. There are some temptations that we cannot conquer alone. But we are not alone. His is with us. When we have Christ in our lives, the pleasures of the world are meaningless next to the all surpassing joy of living in the Lord. And so we ask ourselves: “Was I happier when I was doing this or that, or am I happier when I am one with the Lord?” We know the answer. He is the Answer.
“May He make of us an eternal offering to you,” we pray in the Third Eucharistic Prayer. Living the life of the Lord demands that we let His Presence prevail over all the negatives of the world, all the immoral desires of our lives, and all the temptations we have to be selfish, to be proud. His cross doesn’t just save mankind in general. He saves each of us as individuals who need Him in our lives.
“My chains are gone. I’ve been set free. My God, my Savior, has ransomed me. And like a flood, His mercy reigns, Unending Love, Amazing Grace,” Chris Tomlin added to Amazing Grace. (CCLI License # 2368115) “Welcome Onesimus back,” Paul tells Philemon, no longer a slave but more than a slave, a brother in the Lord.” We are Onesimus. We are more than slaves to the temptations of the world. We are brothers and sisters in the Lord.
For us Christians, all that matters is Jesus Christ. Nothing can stand in the way of living His Life. In the gospel Jesus goes to the extreme: He speaks about hating mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even our own lives. He really is not calling us to hate our loved ones. Nor is he telling us to hate our lives to the point of being suicidal. What He is saying is that we cannot allow anyone or anything to stand in the way of His call to follow Him. If a relationship with another leads us away from Him, then we need to recognize that this relationship is not love, but a tool of the devil to destroy us. We reject anyone and anything that enslaves us. “Hate our own lives?” What does the Lord mean by that? The age of martyrdom in the Church is not over. Perhaps none of us will be called to give witness to Christ by forfeiting our lives like Peter and Paul and so many others of the first century, or Maximilian Kolbe and so many others of the last century. But we need to have the attitude of the martyrs. We need to have the determination that even if holding on to our faith were to lead to our death, we would still stay united to the Lord.
In one way though, we are all martyrs. We are witnesses to Jesus Christ. The word martyr means witness. We embrace the witness of our lives to Jesus Christ because we value the freedom we have in Christ. In the Third chapter of the Letter to the Philippians, Paul writes: “I count all things as a loss next to the supreme good of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.” By knowing, he means experiencing the Lord. We also have experienced the Presence of the Lord in our lives. In comparison to living in the Presence of the Lord, all else in life is garbage.
The second reading and the beginning of the Gospel are difficult this week. But they contain a wonderful message: We had been slaves of the garbage. But now we have been set free.
“My chains are gone. I’ve been set free. My God, my Savior, has ransomed me. And like a flood, His mercy reigns, Unending Love, Amazing Grace,” (CCLI License # 2368115)