We’re beginning our reflection this week with more of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messianic time. He reassures us that, no matter how devastated our world may seem to be, a “shoot shall sprout…a bud shall blossom.”
This sprout, this shoot, is the Messiah whose attributes Isaiah describes in detail. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord…He will judge the poor with justice and decide aright for the land’s afflicted…He will strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth.”
Isaiah moves on to paint a poetic picture of the new world, the Messianic time. “Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together with a little child to guide them.” Isaiah sees a world rejoicing in peace and harmony. “There shall be no more ruin on my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.”
It may be difficult to take this prophecy seriously, today. Our world, and our country, are in turmoil with civic unrest, racial tensions, violence, corruption among the highest government officials, religious leaders and even parents bribing to get their children into good schools. Even though we believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, realistically, the world he came to save is still a mess of violence and corruption. Let’s move on to the gospel to add Matthew’s insight into our reflection regarding the Messianic time.
He begins by quoting Isaiah 40:3. “A voice crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Matthew presents John the Baptist as “the voice” declaring the advent of the new time. Interestingly, John doesn’t use the beautiful poetic images of Isaiah when he speaks about it. Instead, his voice publically condemns the religious leaders who are coming to him to be baptized as a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. He knew that they weren’t coming to him with repentant hearts.
“You brood of vipers!” He spits at them. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance.” There was nothing subtle about John’s condemnation. He understood that the world could never be changed by a powerful political leader even though he might conquer the whole world. His message proclaimed that the world would be transformed from the inside out!
He understood that laws wouldn’t change the world because they’re fragile band-aids to immediate problems, and that clever lawyers and politicians would inevitably squirm around them. Historically, political messiahs ended up thrusting the world into war and turmoil. No, these “messiahs” could never usher in the Messianic time.
The new world, the Messianic time, will appear and shed its light, through the human heart – a heart cleansed of ego – a heart filled with love. Saint Paul understood this when he wrote to the Romans, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14)
The message for this Second Sunday of Advent may sound simple, but it’s a profound challenge for every Christian. The new world will come when each of us empty ourselves and become Christ.
Today we begin the new liturgical year with a spirit of anticipation and unbridled hope! Today we begin Advent. The first scripture of the day is taken from the inaugural prophecy of Isaiah. For Christians, it’s perhaps the most well known pas- sage of the Old Testament.
It would be helpful to put Isaiah’s prophecy into an historical context. In the year 736BC a young king, Ahaz, succeeded to the throne of Judah inheriting a serious politi- cal situation. The king of Damascus and the king of Israel tried to persuade him to join them in an alliance against the king of Assyria. When Ahaz refused, they declared war on Judah. The king reached out to Assyria for help.
Isaiah tried to dissuade him, begging him to rely on God’s faithfulness, not on untrust – worthy political alliances. To persuade him he delivered his famous oracle of a messianic time to come. We’re reading this oracle today.
Ahaz agreed to an alliance that put Judah under Assyrian protection. Assyria used it, however, as an opportunity to annex the northern kingdom, Israel, in 734BC. Samaria fell in
721BC.When Hezekiah succeeded Ahaz as king in 716BC, he reached out to Egypt to support him in a revolt against Assyria. The result was disastrous. The Assyrian forces devastated Pales- tine in 701BC. Only Jerusalem survived destruction.
The fear and uncertainty must have been traumatic for the Jewish leadership and the general population during
those years. It’s in this context that Isaiah de- livered his first prophecy. It began with a lament for Jerusalem, symbolic of the rulers of Judah.
“The faithful city, what a harlot she has become! Zion, once full of fair judgment, where saving justice used to dwell, but now assassins! Your silver has turned to dross, your wine is watered. Your princes are rebels, accomplices of brigands. All of them greedy for presents and eager for bribes, they show no justice to the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.” (Isaiah 1:22-24)
This lament over the corruption of Judah and Jerusalem is followed by a vision of a new world – a Messianic time. In the vision Jerusalem is trans- formed from the place of corruption to the glorious kingdom of God. The temple mount, Zion, the Lord’s house, is seen flooded by people streaming from every part of the world. The divisions and hostilities that have kept people and nations apart have dis- solved. The Lord’s house welcomes everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.
This is a revolutionary image. The word “nations” is goyim in Hebrew. It has a much broader meaning than various countries. It means all those people who aren’t Jews – who aren’t God’s chosen people. In the Jewish vocabulary it’s the disparaging word for “them,” those who aren’t one of us. In the Messianic Time there will be no them and us. National boarders no longer exist so that “the nations” may freely stream to the Lord’s house. The prophecy goes on:
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not rise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”
What a prophecy! Imagine – a world with no national boarders to defend – a world with no wars – a world at peace – a world in which God’s house is its only capital!
Isaiah’s prophecy leads us into Advent, but we must prepare ourselves for this procession to the house of God. We’re asked to shed our crippling cynicism. We’re asked to envision the corruption all around us as a thing of the past. We’re encouraged to abandon our narrow and divisive notions of nation, race and creed. We’re asked to open our eyes to the new world of the Messianic time. We are asked to take a spiritual step into that bright new world, and “walk in the light of the Lord!”
We don’t often think about kingship today, a concept foreign to us, yet one we must ponder if we’re to understand the depth of the feast we’re celebrating.
In the first scripture reading of the day, taken from the Second Book of Samuel, we’re given an
account of the tribes of Israel gathering to anoint David as their King. They declare
him as their shepherd, their protector, and their commander. David will
eventually betray this trust by using his sacred position to orchestrate the death of one of his most trusted commanders in order to take his wife as his own. We learn, through David, that the exalted position of kingship can easily become self-serving, and even tragically destructive.
St. Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians, the second reading for the day, breaks into a rhapsodic hymn of praise as he describes Jesus being lifted up as the Christ. He pro- claims Jesus the image of the invisible God, and the first born of all creation. He
tells us that he is be- fore all things, and in him all things hold together. Through him we have redemption. “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to rec- oncile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross.” In awe and wonder, Saint Paul describes the King- ship of Christ crucified.
In the Gospel passage Luke sets a scene that stands as the antithesis of the tribes of Israel gather-
ing to anoint David as their King. The proclamation of execution nailed to the cross is as clear as any written statement could be: “This is the King of the Jews.” As the people gather around Jesus as he hangs on the cross, they taunt him shouting, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
On the cross Jesus teaches us that true and authentic Kingship does not bring with it absolute power over people. Rather, Kingship demands the total emptying of the self. Jesus was anointed King on the
cross. That act of self-giving lifted Jesus up to the Father as Christ. His anointing aa Christ is what we celebrate today.
The Feast of Christ the King reminds us that, as children of God, we’ve too have been anointed “king.” Whether a political figure, a CEO, the principal of a school, a manager, a teacher, physician, mother, father, guardian, or priest, each one of us is invited to raise our eyes to gaze on Jesus as our model – Jesus on the cross. If we empty ourselves as he did, if we live for others and not ourselves, he will say to us what he said to the criminal crucified with him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
We’re one week away from the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year. In preparation, the scriptures direct us to reflect on a powerful theme, the sec- ond coming of Christ. We first read the prophet Malachi’s description of the coming of the Son of Man, a “day blazing like an oven.” It will be a time of global purification preceding the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of a new world.
The passage from Luke’s Gospel builds upon this theme by presenting Jesus’ teaching on his second coming. He presents it as a time of judgment and cosmic purification “when nation will
rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” But Jesus warns his followers that be- fore the great purification “they will seize and persecute you…because
of my name.”
The Church uses this theme at the end of the year to encourage us to look at our chaotic world with a judgmental eye. Our world wasn’t meant to be a place of “war, famine and persecution.” What have we done to it?! We’re killing each other by the millions as we wrestle for power. We’re ravaging the earth with our strip mining and fracking, polluting our waters and destroying our forests. We’re choking on our garbage, and suffocating ourselves with car and plane emissions. So many of our politicians have lost concern for the common good, and many of our religious leaders are blind guides.
As we end the year we judge our past. But in two weeks, on the first Sunday of Advent, we’ll begin a new year by listening to Isaiah’s prophecy of the new world. “They shall beat their swords into plow- shares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again…let us walk in the light of the Lord!” No matter how dark the world looks to us today, we will begin the New Year with hope, and the resolve to work for the coming of the Kingdom.
Lord Jesus, you ask that I continue your mission by becoming, like you, the light of the world. Send your powerful Spirit to guide and strengthen me. May I, with your help, be a source of hope in the darkness of this chaotic world. Help me to persevere and be strong even though I may be “hated by all because of your name.” Use me to prepare the world for the coming of your kingdom.
Autumn has finally begun to show her face in the Big Apple. Spending the mornings at the Convent of the Sacred Heart where I minister as chaplain, I can view a great panorama of Central Park from the roof of the building. The red and yellow leaves shimmer with a wonderful muted light that only Autumn seems to be able to provide. Soon the leaves will blanket the ground – preparing the earth for its long winter’s sleep.
We’ve just paid homage to the arrival of Fall with three consecutive days of celebration: Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. But we continue reflecting on the sentiment of these three days for a month, until the beginning of our new Liturgical Year on the First Sunday of Advent. This week’s Gospel passage is in line with this Autumnal celebration. We’re thinking about life after death. This is introduced into the Liturgy through Luke’s account of a confrontation between Jesus and the Sadducees.
The Sadducees and the Pharisees were the two politi- cal/religious parties in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The Sadducees were the aristocratic ruling class, and were even more conservative than the Pharisees. They only acknowledged the first five books of the bible as truly revealed by God. They held that there was no resurrection of the dead, and that angels and spirits did not exist. They were in direct opposition to the Pharisees who were the more liberal political party. They accepted in its entirety what we call the Old Testament, and believed in the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels and spirits. The two parties put aside their differences and united against Jesus.
In the passage today, the Sadducees attacked Jesus on his beliefs in the resurrection. In a question, they contrived a situation in which a man
died leaving his wife childless. They dug up an ancient and archaic Jewish law that obliged the brother of a deceased man to marry his brother’s wife in order to father an heir for him. They made the story extra ridiculous by saying that the man’s seven brothers married the woman but each died before they could produce an heir. Their question to Jesus was this: “In the resurrection whose wife will this woman be?”
Jesus’ answer was quit clear. At the resurrection there will be no marriage. We become like angels. We become the children of God. He went on to remind them of the scene from the book of Exodus when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Moses asked who was speaking to him. God said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and God of Jacob.” Jesus went on to say that, “He is the God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive.” In other words, death is not final. We live on.
The Church took this teaching of Jesus and linked it to a very popular pre-Christian, Gaelic celebration, Samhain (pronounced sow -in). The Church made it a three-day event: Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Samhain marked the day of the year when it was believed that the veil between the corporal world and the spiritual world was at its thinnest. It developed a spooky and fantastical side but, at its core, it celebrated the continuity of our lives in the material world and in the spiritual world on the other side of the veil.
The Church followed up by remembering all the Saints who have been crowned in heavenly glory. Then, in the feast of All Souls, it encourages us to remember our friends and relatives who have recently passed through the veil.
Reflecting on Mother Nature’s winter sleep, the Church invites us to celebrate the fullness of our lives, here, in the earthly kingdom and, when we pass over, in the spiritual kingdom of God. As this world retreats into winter hibernation, we ponder the day of our pass-over and resurrection.
Today we hear a story about a short man who is (literally) up a tree. Zacchaeus is well known by the wealthy people of Jericho, and the many merchants who pass through with their goods, because he’s the city’s tax collector. We’re told that he’s “a wealthy man,” which is a nice way of saying he’s an extortionist. Being a tax collector under the Roman occupation, he’s labeled a traitor and a thief, and is shunned by the city’s population.
Before we go on with the story, let’s get a better picture of this important town. Jericho lies about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. It’s an ancient city going back as far as 9,000 BC. It’s an oasis and enjoys the title, “the city of palms.” Because of its mild weather and beau- tiful springs, it attracts the rich and powerful. Herod has a summer palace there, and many
wealthy people from Jerusalem have villas there. It’s also important be- cause the major trade route of the Middle East passes through the Jor- dan Valley and Jericho. Zacchaeus is one of the tax collectors who taxed goods as they passed through on their way to markets throughout the em- pire.
Because Jericho is home to the rich and famous, celebrity seekers and the curious tend to mill along the roads entering and leaving the city. Beggars line the roads, too. Jesus, on his approach to Jericho that day, met a blind man who begged him to re- store his sight. “Jesus told him, ‘Have sight; your faith has saved you.’ He
immediately received his sight and followed Jesus, giving glory to God.” This new follower is among the crowd when Jesus enters the city and meets up with Zacchaeus.
Here’s the picture. Jesus of Nazareth, a well know personality in the Jewish world, has just entered the city after curing a blind man. There’s a noisy and sizable crowd following him. Zacchaeus sees the crowd approaching, and wants to get a glimpse of Jesus. But being too short to see over the crowd, and probably being elbowed by people who wanted to keep him away, Zacchaeus runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree to get a good view of the healer from Nazareth. Lo and behold, when Jesus comes to the sycamore he stops. He looks up. Seeing little Zacchaeus hanging on to the branches, he says the most remarkable thing: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I
must stay in your home.”
People hate Zacchaeus. He’s lived a life of
corruption. He’s wealthy, but so what. He’s an outcast to his own people. Only his fellow outcasts, sinners and tax collectors, social- ize with him. But in an instant everything changes. Jesus, the healer and holy man, has just called him by his name! He wants to come to his home! From this moment on, Zacchaeus’ life will never be the same.
Immediately, the crowd begins to grumble because Jesus has invited himself to a sinner’s home, but little Zacchaeus stands up to them. Climbing down from the tree, he makes a public confession by announcing the amends he will make for his sins. “Behold, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I will repay it four-times over.” Without any hesitation Jesus gives him ab- solution. “Today, salvation has come to this house.” He then reasserts Zacchaeus into the community. He tells the crowd, “This man, too, is a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus follows this up with an important universal teaching. He announces to the crowd that, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
We mustn’t forget this teaching. Each of us, at one time or another, will find our- selves up a tree, in spiritual crisis. We might feel that we’re trapped in a life with no direction, no future. Asking God for help isn’t enough to change things. Sometimes we have to claim our part in creating the crisis, and we have to take aggressive steps to change. It’s never easy.
The blind man on the road to Jericho shouted out into the darkness that he wanted to see. Jesus heard him, recognized the depth of his faith, and announced his cure. Zacchaeus had extorted the mer- chants, and betrayed his people. The day Jesus came to town, his faith gave him the courage to publically confess his sins, and make amends to the community. By getting out on a limb, he was finally able to see Jesus. He took a chance, and Jesus entered his life that day.
The message for us is quite simple. Take a chance. Go out on a limb. It’s an important part of our spiritual lives. It can bring us healing. It can bring us a new life.
The parable of the Persistent Widow follows an extended teaching that Jesus delivered to his apostles about the coming of the Kingdom of God. It’s important that we reflect on this parable in the context of this teaching.
The apostles once asked Jesus to teach them to pray. So he spoke the prayer that we all know so well, the Lord’s Prayer. It contains the phrase: “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” These two phrases contain an excellent definition of the Kingdom of God. It is among us and, the same time, is evolving into full maturity when earth will have achieved perfect harmony with the will of God.
The Kingdom was set in motion at the first moment of creation when, God, from within the “inapproachable light,” commanded “Let there be light.” This light was carried and nurtured by people of good faith, the prophets and the people of the covenant. In the fullness of time, Jesus, at his resurrection, was anointed Christ, “the light of the world.” He impressed upon his disciples their role in the coming of the Kingdom when he declared to them: “You are the light of the world!” He was commissioning them, and those who would follow them in faith, to carry the light until the day of the Kingdom’s fulfillment when God will be “all in all.”
In the parable, the Persistent Widow is the image of the Poor in Spirit, all of us, the community of believers that continually witness to the light through our way of life and our prayer. As such, we never cease battling against the darkness that grips the world,
represented by the corrupt judge who “neither feared God nor respected any human being.” In the par- able, Jesus stresses that this life-long task demands constant and unshakeable dedication on our part. We must “pray always without becoming weary.” This prayer is the divine light we treasure within us. It’s the persistent Christ-light that shines in the darkness. It’s the light that can never be overcome. It’s the Kingdom of God among us moving towards its fulfillment.
As I gaze on the Eucharistic Christ, I see the light of divine love. As I am fed by the Eucharistic Christ, I feel his light grow within me. As I carry the Christ- light with me, I bring the light of the Kingdom into the darkness. Lord Jesus Christ, let your light shine in me today and every day. May your Kingdom come.
This week’s Gospel relates the well- known parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It begins by giving us a glimpse of “the gilded age” in Jesus’ time. “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.” The palatial homes of the wealthy were built in a way that would flaunt their riches. Wealthy city- dwellers had dining rooms that were often slightly elevated from the street level and opened-aired. In the hot climate this afforded cool evening breezes to blow through. It also allowed the “common peo ple” to get a glimpse of the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Lazarus, a beggar who was covered with sores, found a place on the street below the dining room. He would watch the master of the house and his guests feast day after day, his mouth watering and his stomach growling all the while. His only companions were the street dogs who would approach him, and kindly lick his sores.
The scene quickly shifts. Both Lazarus and the rich man have died. We need to understand the concept of death that was prevalent at the time of Jesus to understand this scene. At his death, the rich man found himself in the netherworld. This isn’t what we would portray as hell, though the rich man speaks of being tormented in fire. The netherworld was the underground abode of the dead. Jesus often described this as the place where there was, “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” It’s the place of tremendous regret. There, the rich man suffered with the memories of missed opportunities. Distracted by his wealth and daily feast- ing, he had no sympathy for the hungry and sick beggar peering into his dining room every day. And so, unlike Lazarus, he wasn’t “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” He was brought to the abode of the dead.
The heart of the parable consists of a dialogue between the rich man and Abraham. The rich man looks up and, way in the distance, sees Lazarus at Abraham’s side. His self-absorption still in high gear, he calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus, like a servant, to relieve his suffering with a drop of water.
With touching compassion, Abraham addresses him as, “my child,” and explains to him that Laza- rus is being comforted for his long suffering, while he is tormented by the terrible emptiness of his life of selfishness and excess. Abraham goes on to tell him that by ignoring the suffering of others he had dug a huge chasm around himself, stranding him- self in a place of painful isolation.
The rich man suddenly thinks of his five brothers who are living the same selfish life-style. Again,
he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them to alert them so that they can change their ways. But Abraham tells him that they have all they need. They have the wisdom of the Law and the prophets to direct them. The rich man immediately pro- tests telling Abraham that if Lazarus came from the dead to warn them they would repent and change their ways. Abraham responds to him with compassion and sadness. ”If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The rich man knew the wise teachings of the Law and the prophets. He didn’t take them seriously. He knew the teaching from Deuteronomy, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but never thought of reaching out to Lazarus who was suffering in the street right below his dining room. In fact, he was so self-absorbed that he didn’t even know Lazarus was there.
This parable, unlike Dickens’ story about Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t end with a joyful conversion. Jesus was portraying someone very wealthy. But wealth and extravagance wasn’t his sin, his self-absorption was. It smothered his life. He went to the abode of the dead because he was dead his entire life. He didn’t see the world around him. His narcissism created the “great chasm” that isolated him from the world, a world that was often suffer- ing.
In this parable Jesus is teaching us that, to be truly alive, we must permit ourselves to SEE and FEEL the world around us. This isn’t as easy as it may sound because, when we do so, we’ll often feel uncomfortable. When we see suffering around us it tears at our heart. Sometimes we want to DO something to help but don’t know what to do. We feel impotent. When we see homeless people on our doorstep, or the terrible violence and suffering in the Middle East, the people trapped in the starvation belts across the world, the destruction and death in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, and the families suffering in the internment camps across the country, the compassion we feel can turn into painful despair. But this shouldn’t prevent us from feeling, from mourning. We have to remember what Jesus taught us. “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “Blessed are the merciful.”
There’s always something we can DO, but it will often feel miniscule in comparison to the scope of the suffering we see. But we must continue to SEE it. We must continue to FEEL it. It will keep us alive – alive in spirit and truth. It will prevent the digging of the “great Chasm” around us. It will add the healing ingredient of compassion into our world. One heart at a time, it will change the world.
Today we’re presented with three parables. The context in which they’re delivered is the key to their interpretation. “Tax collector and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to com- plain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
Jesus has not only been welcoming to sinners, he has been eating with
them, an action that means he’s in communion with them! These three parables are Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ criticism of him, but more importantly, though them, we discover Jesus’ understanding of what the Pharisees label sin.
The first two parables are similar. The parable of the lost sheep presents God as a devoted shepherd anxiously pursuing a sheep that has gotten separated from the flock, and can’t find its way back. When that sheep is found, not only does the shepherd rejoice with his friends, but even the angels in heaven throw a party!
In the second parable, God is a woman who lost a coin – one tenth of the wealth she has. She scours through her house until she finally finds it. She’s so happy, she calls in her friends and parties – as do the an- gels in heaven.
The third parable is the well known story of the loving Father, the prodigal son and the unforgiving brother. God is the father who, from the time his son leaves him, stands at the window hoping for his return. When he does return, after loosing one half of the family’s wealth, the father runs out to hug and kiss him. The unforgiving brother, like the Pharisees, rejects his brother as a sinner.
Jesus is giving a twist to the idea of sin. It’s not an offence against God; it’s the experience of separation from the community. The sheep, the coin and the son are lost. When they’re found, the community on earth and in heaven rejoices. The father in the parable captures God’s joy at the return of a lost one who has suffered separation from God and the community. “We must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
Dear God, thank you for never giving up on me. I confess that sometimes I don’t know where I am or where I’m going, but your love, like a magnet, continually tugs at me, pulling me in the right direction. Deep in my soul I know you stand with never tiring, open arms, waiting for me – waiting to hug me to your heart.
Most of my reflections focus on the message of the Gospel. This week, however, I felt attracted to the second reading of the day taken from Paul’s letter to Philemon. Some background is needed to understand the relational dynamic that’s the central focus of the letter. Three people are involved, Paul, Philemon and Onesimus.
During his third missionary journey, Paul spent two years preaching and ministering in Asia Minor. Many were converted to Christ through his preach- ing, especially in the cities of Ephesus and Colossae where he established Christian communities. Philemon was a convert from Colossae. Later on, when Paul was under house arrest in Rome, 61-63 AD, Philemon’s runaway slave came to him and was converted by him. Paul put his relationship
with the slave, Onesimus, in an interest- ing way as he writes to Philemon: “on be- half of my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment…I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.”
This letter gives us a unique glimpse into one moral dilemma that the early Church lived with, slavery. The Roman Empire flourished under a slave economy. Some estimates put the number of slaves as high as 40% of the population. Some were captured in wars, many were kid-
napped by pirates and sold into slavery and, of course, many were the children of slaves. Some slaves were lucky enough to work in the house- holds of the wealthy. Others, not so lucky, were worked to death in mines or shackled together as they worked the fields. Onesimus was probably a house slave. It seems he also stole either money or valuable objects when he fled because Paul volunteers to make amends for him.
In the letter, Paul tells Philomen that he would like to keep Onesimus by his side as a worker from the Gospel, but is, non-the-less, sending him back to his master. But Paul is quite clear that the relationship between master and salve is quite differ- ent now. “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back for- ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a
brother, beloved especially to me, but even moretoyou,asamanintheLord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.” This is powerful stuff!
A slave had the status of a chair or a table. A slave was an object that had no rights. A slave was not a person. Paul, however, elevates Onesimus referring to him “a brother” and “man in the Lord.” Paul didn’t condemn slavery outright, but we can see in this short letter that he recognized the challenge that the concept of slavery posed to the Christian way of Christ.
Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, articulates the moral foundation of a life in Christ. “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male or female; for you are all one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28)
Christianity wasn’t able to come to grips with the immorality of slavery until the nineteenth century. Enlightened thinkers crafted our Declaration of Independence stating: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pur- suit of happiness.” Most of the men who signed this document were slaver owners. Thomas Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves! It wasn’t until 1865 that slavery was abolished in our country. But the depth of its depravity lingered on to this very day.
I find Paul’s letter to Philemon a wake-up call for us today. We still struggle with gender inequality. We still struggle with racial inequality. We still maintain a cast system that fosters the separation of the rich from the poor. Like the first century Christians we still hesitate to name our social sins. I don’t understand how any Christian can be a racist or white supremacist. I don’t understand how Christians can turn a blind eye to the horrors being inflicted on immigrants. I don’t under- stand how Christians can witness a government putting men, women and children in cages and remain silent- even if it means having an argument at a cocktail party.
Two thousand years ago Paul, the apostle his life to Christ, understood the deeper teachings of Jesus and articulated them in his letters to the Churches. Today, Pope Francis is regularly highlighting some of those teachings. He’s often degraded as a socialist and ultra-liberal by pseudo-Christians. Jesus spoke the truth and was crucified. Paul spoke the truth and was beheaded. What are we afraid of that we don’t speak the truth?