23rd-C Sun Ordinary Time
Ws 9:13-18b, Ps 90:3-17, Phmn 9-10,12-17, Lk 14:25-33
Some people call it “their wake-up call.” Maybe it’s the death of a loved one that elicits the question: “Now what do I do?” Maybe it’s a life-threatening disease that makes us wonder, “Why have we missed so much of the fun in life?” Maybe it takes a stock market crash, or a lost job for us to look at our priorities with a whole new perspective, a wake-up call.
But whatever it is that causes our wake-up call, it has to be BIG. It has to be PERSONAL in one way or another, and that usually hurts. And it has to FORCE some RESPONSE or ACTION from us. WE have to make a decision for ourselves.
Jesus ‘works’ his followers with dramatic parables and exaggerated demands to try to elicit a response. Either they’ll think of Him as a ‘crazy man’ and leave, or they will wake-up to realize the Truth in Jesus’ words and desire to follow Him all the more. The questions Jesus presents to His followers and to us today are these: “What is it that possesses us?” and “What are our priorities?”
Are we possessed by smoking, or eating, or money, or our jobs, or even our closest companions? Now we might be saying to ourselves, “Those things don’t possess me!” Well, here’s the test – If we cannot give it up for Lent, it possesses us. And if it possesses us, have we ever thought about – why? Will its momentary enjoyment Cost us anything in the long run, like health, or wisdom, or depression, or loneliness. And if it was to disappear tomorrow, what would the impact be on our lives?
Now you all might be thinking, “Oh well, there goes that deacon again, making us feel bad about the few things in life we do enjoy.” Ah, but Jesus didn’t come to make us feel bad, or even feel good for that matter. Jesus came to help us set our priorities straight. And if we set our priorities according to Jesus’ teachings, not only will life itself be more meaningful, but whenever that life crashes into a brick wall, like a death, or a disease, or a financial setback, then we’ll realize that we’re standing on a Rock and not a lily pad. Then, we’ll have the strength to carry those ‘crosses’, those inevitable burdens that every life must bear, and not crumble under their weight.
Jesus tells us that discipleship does have its price. It cost some of our precious time in prayer. It cost the sacrifice of giving a little of ourselves for the sake of others. It cost a little learning about our own faith, through classes, or Bible reading or Catechism. It might even cost our lives if we ever have to defend our faith. But in the long run, the Promise of Eternal Life with God so outweighs any possible possession here and now, that there is no question of priorities. Jesus is the ONLY priority under-which everything else in life falls.
Now, all of that sounds pretty philosophical, but we still might be asking, “How does this fit into real life – my job, my responsibilities, my family?” Today we’ve heard a little piece of a real-life story, which demonstrates the epitome of Christian diplomacy. The setting is about 60AD in a city called Colossae, which would be located in today’s Turkey. And just like many of us have dogs as pets and rules to control our pets, the people of Colossae had slaves and rules to control their slaves. And if the rules were broken, the punishment could be as severe as death, if for example, a slave had run away. Those slaves were totally possessed by their owners.
Now, the apostle Paul, through his helpers, had set up a few churches in Colossae. One of these churches was led by a wealthy man, named Philemon. As the story goes, Philemon possessed a slave by the name of Onesimus, who actually did run away. And somewhere in his fugitive travels, Onesimus ran into Paul. Of course, knowing Paul’s zeal for his faith, it didn’t take long before Onesimus too, became a Christian and a beloved friend of Paul.
Now remember, we said Christianity does not come free of cost. There are things like responsibility, honesty and integrity that are required, besides faith in Jesus. So Paul had the obligation to return Onesimus back to Philemon. But the risk, the cost, might just be the very life of Onesimus himself. So Paul composed this very elegant letter to Philemon, and it was addressed to the whole church in Colossae, for the sake of Philemon’s accountability.
In the letter, Paul first praised and complemented Philemon for his great work in leading his church. He then reminded Philemon of his indebtedness to Paul for bringing Jesus into his life. And with that indebtedness, Paul requests a favor. He asks, if Philemon can find it in his Christian heart to accept Onesimus back, without the due penalty. Can Philemon, as a Christian leader, not only forgive, but even give-up his possession of Onesimus as a slave, in order that he become, instead, a “Brother in Christ?” Now, this is the true meaning of Grace – gift, given even to the guilty.
And the cost to Philemon for such an action could be quite high. It could cause him great humiliation by his neighbors. He might lose the respect of all of his other slaves. It might even result in the loss of Philemon’s job. But in the long run, imagine its impact on the whole concept of slavery. Imagine its impact on the early church in Colossae. Imagine its impact on how we ourselves might think about our “possessions”, whether they’re our children, the staff we manage, or even our dogs.
Jesus is calling us to ‘wake-up,’ to put a little love in our lives, to let go of what’s possessing us, or what we think we possess, and place Him first. And with that priority, all those other things will either fall out in-the-sifting, or be magnified in His Love – like our fathers and mothers, our wives and children, our brothers and sisters and even our own lives.
This short letter of St. Paul to Philemon is not only magnificent in its Christian diplomacy, but if we read it close enough, through the eyes of the Holy Spirit, we might just discover something even more beautiful.
If, just for fun, we were to substitute the characters: of Philemon with God the Father, of Paul with Jesus and of Onesimus with us, let’s look again at today’s verses in a little different light, as Jesus writes to his Father about us . . .
I, Jesus, and old man, and now also a prisoner, urge you (Father) on behalf of my children, whose brother I have become in my imprisonment; I am sending them, that is my own heart, back to you (Father). I should have liked to retain them for myself, so that they might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the Gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced, but voluntary.
Perhaps this is why they were away from you for a while, that you might have them back forever, no longer as slaves, but more than slaves, as brothers and sisters, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you (Father).
So if you regard me as a partner (and Son), welcome them as you would me. And if they have done you any injustice or owe you anything, charge it to me. I Jesus write this in my own hand: I will pay. (jmp editorial only)
And He did (By His crucifixion). And He still does (In every Eucharistic sacrifice/celebration).
Got this response from Janelle on Facebook – it’s quite awesome!
Hi Deacon Joe,
I have a cute story to pass along to you about what it means to be a Christian, that strikes me as being something you would enjoy too. I keep thinking about an old friend from Japan, and a comment she made about Christians while she was living as a guest in my parents home a few years back. She had moved here as a newlywed with her husband, and didn’t speak really any English at all. She got better at it, but wasn’t too confident. Her husband was abusive, and she was in an impossibly difficult situation being in this country, knowing no one but him, with poor language skills. Anyway, my parents took her in when she had to flee the situation, and she started to attend a bible study with my mom (CBS–the one Gina and I attend!).
After she had gone to the bible study a few times, and observed the beautiful demeanor of the other women in her study group, she commented to my mom “Christians! They have so much JOY! They must not have any PROBLEMS!”
After a few more weeks went by, Yuki (her Japanese name) continued to attend the bible study, and regularly began to hear some of the desperate and difficult prayer requests of some of the ladies in her group. She came to my mom, and this time she commented, “these CHRISTIANS! They have so many PROBLEMS! How can they have any JOY!”
Needless to say, she wanted some of that JOY for herself, and she became a Christian too. She eventually figured out a way to get back to Japan and live with her mother, and got a job as a nurse there. She is doing well.
I just felt like I should share that with you! You have shared some wonderful, memorable stories with us at church from time to time, so I thought you might enjoy this one. It kind of reminded me of something you said in a homily a few weeks back about trouble, and how everyone has trouble, and how to get through our trouble we should build our faith on a rock, and not on a lily pad. This story SORT-of goes with that, I think!
Thank you Janelle!! Thank you Jesus!