HOMILY for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time. Cycle C September 4, 2016
In the second reading from St. Paul to Philemon, we see Philemon, apparently one of St. Paul’s converts, faced with a dilemma. His slave, Onesimus, had run away. But, who does Onesimus end up with but St. Paul. And the slave also gets converted by St. Paul. Now St. Paul sends Onesimus the slave back to his master, Philemon, and tells Philemon, “welcome him as you would me.”
It sounds simple, but it is extremely dangerous. Philemon is in a tough spot. It is bad enough that Philemon has lost a slave, a big financial hit. Now even worse, Paul is sending him back with the instruction “welcome him as you would me.” Paul lays it on rather thick: “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.” THAT is a real problem. The usual way to “welcome back” a runaway slave is NOT the way you would welcome St. Paul.
So Philemon has got to make a choice. Will he follow the wisdom of the world, ignore the entreaty of St. Paul, and severely punish his runaway slave, or will he follow the request of St Paul and welcome his former slave, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, especially dear to “St. Paul????
And if Philemon welcomes his former slave as a brother, how long will it be before all his slaves suddenly get religion and become Christians??? What will his neighbors, his fellow slave-holders and respectable people of the community think of that? What will his wife and children say?
Poor Philemon is in a tough spot. It is a perfect example of what Jesus is talking ab0ut in the Gospel. “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. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
This is pretty tough. It involves a total and complete commitment. There is no room for hesitation, for half-measures, for a “measured, reasonable” response. This is all in or not at all.
The cost of discipleship is high. Indeed, it demands EVERYTHING. It is unreasonable, it is total, it is, frankly, fanatic.
Jesus is not pussyfooting around on this, not making qualifications or exceptions. He very clearly lays it out there: “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. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
So, if being a disciple of Jesus is so costly, why would anyone buy into it? Why follow Jesus if the cost is everything?
This is not the calculation of the business world. Even if from a rational cost-benefit ratio analysis it makes logical sense to give up everything in order to gain salvation and the fullness of eternal life, still, real people don’t think like that.
Rather, this is the logic of love, of whole-hearted love, of love that demands and that sacrifices everything. Not because of the reward, of the payoff, but because of the desire to be fully united with the Beloved, and the fullness of the Love. What is desired is wholehearted union with the Beloved.
Salvation, eternal life, the fullness of Love, the Beatific Vision as we used to say. It is complete and total happiness. And indeed, the total commitment is necessary for the union with the Beloved to be total. Only by putting ourselves totally and completely into discipleship of the Lord Jesus are we able to be totally and completely redeemed, renewed, refashioned anew. By not holding back anything, by committing 100% of our strength, our passions, our fears, our very selves, will we be completely and entirely and fully redeemed. We will be made totally new. Starting now. And that is wonderful.
Only by going beyond the ordinary and the common place could Philemon be fully and extraordinarily filled with new life. And the same is true for us.
Jesus shows us the way, the way to union with the Father. It is not easy. But it is worth all the work and sacrifice, and Jesus walks with us every step of the way. It is the way of Love. God bless.