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.
When it came to telling the truth, Jesus didn’t hold anything back. He was especially blunt with the religious leaders. For them, scrupulously following the rules and regulations of the law was the benchmark of true religion and what made a person righteous. Jesus often challenged their
teaching. Today’s parable is one of his most direct criticisms. Luke tells us that, “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteous- ness and despised everyone else.”
Right off the bat, Jesus focused the story on a particular group, the Pharisees, an ultraorthodox group that evolved from the scribes and sages and adhered to the strictest observance of the law. They reveled in their orthodoxy, and even took on themselves the name Pharisee, which means: “one who is separated.” They were haughty, and believed that, when it came to religion, they were better than most people.
In the parable Jesus juxtaposes a Pharisee and a tax collector. Remember that in the political climate of the day the tax collector was looked upon with loathing. Let’s face it, every- one hates paying taxes – and the tax collector would naturally carry the brunt of that hatred. But there’s more to the position of tax collector. Palestine was occupied by a foreign power,
Rome, and was taxed heavily. The tax collector was, by definition, a traitor be- cause he worked as an instrument of a foreign government to the detriment of his own people. Jesus begins the parable with a description of the Pharisee’s prayer.
He took a position in the temple where he could be easily seen by the people and spoke aloud. “O God, thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” The picture I get from this one sentence is of a man looking over a crowd of worshipers with his nostrils flared as if smelling something quite disgusting. He’s haughty and filled with deepest disdain for the people he sees. His gaze rests on the hated tax collector. He immediately
voices a prayer thanking God that he isn’t like the tax collector. The Pharisee goes on to inform God of the depth of his commitment to the law. “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
Jesus then focuses the parable on the tax collector who has found a private place to pray away from the people. He doesn’t dare look up to heaven. He bows his head, and begins to beat his breast as a sign of his sinfulness and repentance. He then quietly and simply pours out his heart. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
In this simple scene Jesus spins a teach- ing about the power of truth and the emptiness of self-delusion. The Pharisee proclaims himself the model of righteousness, bragging that he’s not dishonest, or greedy. He’s certainly not like this tax collector. How very true! In his prayer, the tax collector pours out his heart, honestly, and humbly con- fesses his frailty and struggles. He prays truthfully, and is rewarded. He returns home justified.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, is an empty shell of a person. He has abandoned his heart and soul. He doesn’t pray to God – he prays to the idol he has created. He worships himself and invites others to worship him. He did not go home justified. He went home more inflated and less alive.
Jesus ends the parable by warning us that “whoever exalts himself will be hum- bled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The parable is giving us a very simple teaching. When you or I honestly open up and, in painful humility, present our wounded and broken selves to God, God’s healing love rushes into our hearts. Will all our wounds disappear? Some will. Some won’t. Will we no longer be broken people? Maybe not! What will happen is much more important. God’s love of us will assist us in truly loving ourselves.
The Pharisee was in love with a false image of himself. That kind of idolatry doesn’t invite God’s healing love. Only our honest self- assessment, no matter how bad we may seem to ourselves, opens the floodgates of God’s healing love. When we accept ourselves for the broken and limited individuals we are, we can lay down our heads and rest peacefully in the knowledge that God loves who we are.
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.
The first scripture we hear today is taken from the Second Book of Kings. It relates the story of a highly esteemed and respected Syrian army commander, Naaman. Sadly, he suffered from leprosy. His wife’s slave, a Jewish girl captured during a raid on Israel, told her mistress that there was a prophet in Samaria who could cure her master. Naaman responded to her suggestion. He went to the king of Syria who gave him a letter of introduction to the king of Israel along with gifts of ten silver talents, six thousand gold pieces and ten festal garments. Naaman and his retinue then set out to Israel. After delivering the letter of introduction and the gifts to the king, he went to the house of Elisha the prophet.
Naaman was told, through a messenger from Elisha, to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. He became enraged because the prophet didn’t come out to greet him personally, and that he was told to bathe in the Jordan, a river much inferior to the rivers of Syria. However, his slaves encouraged him to perform the simple task. What did he have to
lose. He bathed in the river seven times and was cured. He sent word to Elisha that he would, from that day on, wor- ship only the God of Israel.
The Gospel relates the story of Jesus curing a band of ten lepers. Unlike the highly respected Naaman, these men were social outcasts. The law prohibited them from approach- ing anyone, including family. They had to keep their distance from all healthy people. So, “they stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master! Have pity on us.’” He told them to go and show themselves to the priests. This
was to receive from them an official declaration of health, and the freedom to return to their former lives. One of them, realizing that he was cured, be- gan to glorify God. He came to Jesus, threw himself at his feet, and thanked him. The man was a Samaritan.
Both of these accounts remind us of the importance of faith. Naaman discovered the true God through his healing. Jesus told the Samaritan who returned to give thanks that his faith had saved him.
Both of these stories focus on the outsider – the person who doesn’t fit in or isn’t in harmony with the society around him. Naaman wasn’t a Jew. His country had been in conflict with Israel. Yet he dis- covered a new life by entering the faith life of his enemy.
The Samaritan, despised by Jews, and separated from his own people because of his illness, found salvation and healing because his faith made him strong enough to reach out to the Jewish prophet, Jesus. Where can we go with these accounts?
We always need to bring the scriptures into our
present-day experiences if they’re going to be a source of spiritual enrichment and guidance. Then perhaps the first question we should ask is, what does the image of the leper evoke for me, personally?
We may not have a physical illness, but we all suffer quietly within ourselves. We all experience what seems like an incurable sense of shame. Think back to your adolescence when you felt ugly, or overweight, or perpetually awkward. It was a period when the slightest comment about you could be the source of tremendous inner pain. You covered up the pain. You smiled in public but wept when you were alone. That adolescent shame rarely leaves us as we immerge into adult- hood. Perhaps we don’t feel it the same way, but it festers quietly within us, and subconsciously affects the way we act and our relationship with others.
Each of us needs inner healing. In one way or another each of us can relate to the painful isolation of the lepers in today’s readings. Each of us can cry out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on me!”
On the societal level we continue to suffer tremendously because of the hidden shame we carry as a society. We don’t seem to be able to unite as a community of diverse people. Just when we think we’ve healed some of our societal wounds like racism and sexism, another painful ulcer appears. Witness the brutality of our immigration policies. Witness the harassment, and sometimes even murder, of transgender people. Our society can cry out, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!
Each of us needs to bathe in the Jordan seven times. Each of us needs to cry out for healing from the Master. We haven’t been able to heal ourselves. We have to trust a power greater than our own to heal the inner shame that continues to torment us and our society.
Each of us has to ask ourselves the deep question, “What am I ashamed of?” When we honestly answer that question, we can call out a sincere plea for heal- ing. We have to have faith that the Divine Physical can cure us and our society. We have to have faith that the love of God can cure all our ills. We have to heal our shame in order to free the divine love that is within each of us. We have to ask for heal- ing so that we can all walk in the glory of the children of God.
“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
We’ve all heard this teaching many times. I don’t know about you, but I question the depth of my faith every day. Right now, as I’m writing this reflection, I’m asking myself, “When was the last time you had enough faith to uproot a tree or to move a mountain?!”
Jesus’ declaration makes me, a supposed man of faith, feel guilty about my lack of faith. I know that Jesus was using hyperbole in this teaching, but still, I don’t feel that I’ve ever done the equivalent of uprooting a mulberry tree or moving a mountain with the power of my faith! I take this teaching as a tremendous personal challenge. I wonder if my faith will
ever grow to the size of a mustard seed. With this personal confession, I’ll move on to the second part of his teaching.
“Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table?’ Would you not, rather, say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished?’ Is he grateful to that servant be- cause he did what he was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are un- profitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
The second part of this teaching doesn’t leave me feeling as guilty as the first part. I work very hard. But often, I put too much on my plate, and so don’t always do my best. There’s a discipline that I lack. I rarely say no. I feel guilty about this, too.
When I first entered the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament as an impressionable teen- ager, I was impressed by an image our founder used to focus our call to serve Jesus. He asked us to be like the vigil candle that burns before the Blessed Sacrament. Its flame can continue to be a sentinel of faith only because the candle gives up its life to feed it. When I feel the stress, and sometimes pain, of working, I often think of the image of the candle. It helps me renew my energy and I keep going.
These are my thoughts about the gospel passage today. I’m sharing these personal thoughts with you to encourage you in your own reflections. Faith is a very personal matter. You have your own, very special and
unique experience of faith. You hear the call to be God’s servant in your own way, and your response is unique to you.
Try not to let any feelings of guilt you may experience as you reflect on these teachings paralyze you from taking a positive step as a disciple of Jesus. I’ve always found that my feelings of guilt were a hindrance to my accepting God’s loving call. Don’t let negative feelings dis- tract you from what Jesus taught us: that God is love. He clearly manifested that in his own life.
The two teachings we’re thinking about to- day, faith and service, point us to his call to love as God loves – unconditionally and sacrificially. To teach that we’re here on earth to serve God, means we’re on earth to love. That’s the challenge we all face as his disciples.
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.
We have two very interesting readings for our reflection this Sunday. The first comes from the prophet Amos. He lashes out in condemnation of the businessmen of his day. “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and destroy the poor of the land!” He then enumerates how they cheat and abuse the poor, and reminds them that God will not forget the suffering they’ve caused.
The Gospel passage that follows stands unique in the New Testament. Throughout the Gospels we read Jesus’ wonderful par- ables – short stories teaching about the Kingdom of God. Today’s parable is the only one of Jesus’ parables that’s not about the Kingdom. It’s a story that stands as the antithesis of the Kingdom. It’s a glimpse into the systemic corruption of the earthly kingdom.
Jesus presents a situation in which a hired steward is going to be fired for squandering his employer’s wealth. The steward, in
those days, was the CEO and general man- ager of his employer’s businesses, wealth and often his household. We’re not told what he did exactly. He may have made bad business deals, or perhaps found ways to enrich himself through this most important position. It doesn’t make that much difference to the story. It’s the steward’s response to his firing that’s central to the parable.
The corrupt steward goes immediately to his employer’s business ledger to find out which of his clients have outstanding ac- counts payable. He contacts two of them, probably the most prestigious accounts, and the ones that owe the most. He then cooks the books. One client owes one hundred measures of olive oil. The steward rewrites the contract to show a debt of fifty measures of oil. Another owes a hundred kors of wheat. He chops it down to eighty. The two clients would have been very pleased by this bit of corruption.
The part that really stinks in this story is that this manipulation of the books is a personal investment by the steward. This move will entangle these two clients in his web of thievery. He did them a huge favor. Now they owe him. As he says: “When I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.” They can’t say what he did to anyone because they would be exposing their role in the thievery.
The cynical chuckle that concludes the story is provided by the employer. “The master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” That’s the way of the world, the earthly kingdom.
The parable having been delivered, Jesus then addressed his disciples. Our translation of his message is confusing. “I tell you, make friends with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Let’s interpret the sentence in this way. As “children of the light,” we must be trust- worthy even “with dishonest wealth” so that we can be trusted with the true wealth of the Kingdom. We have to learn to navigate through the corruption that so often surrounds money. The children of the light can’t be entangled in the world’s web of corruption. Jesus concluded this parable with his well-known principle. “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
I conclude this reflection with a challenging anecdote. One of the great “children of the light,” was Mother Teresa. To continue running the many institutions she established throughout the world, she was continually putting out her hand begging for money. Many people responded to her pleas. I’m sure she thanked them personally – in the name of the poor she was serving. In the public arena, when she wasn’t asking for financial assistance, but was teaching the principles of the Kingdom, she was often heard to say, “Don’t tell me how much money you’ve given away. Tell me how much you have left.” Mother Teresa knew the meaning of detachment, and the liberation it brings. Jesus put it this way to his disciples, “the foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Each of us, rich and poor alike, have a great deal to ponder today.
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?
In the Gospel passage for today Luke sets the stage for an interesting scene. “On a Sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were ob- serving him carefully.” OK. Jesus is under the microscope. Is he nervous or put off by this? Just the opposite. HE ob- serves the guests! He notices that they’re vying for the places of honor at the table. So, he slaps a parable on them.
He tells them that when they’re invited to a wedding they should take the last place at the banquet table. This will
prevent them any embarrassment should a more distinguished guest have been invited and was supposed to sit in the seat you’ve chosen on your own. He tells the guests to take the lowest place so that the host can
direct them to a higher seat. This will stimulate the guests’ admiration of them. Makes social sense; but then he adds a universal truth to the advice. “For every- one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” This is also a subtle attack at the Pharisees and their cohorts.
The word Pharisee means “separated one.” They followed the minutiae of the Law so perfectly that they were considered to have achieved religious perfection. Throughout his ministry, Jesus will challenge their multiplication of laws
calling them “blind guides” that lay “heavy burdens” on the people. (John the Baptist wasn’t as polite as Jesus. He referred to them as “a brood of vi- pers.”)
Jesus then shifts his full attention to his host. “When you hold a lunch or dinner do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they invite you back and you have repayment.” This must have been a shock for the Pharisee. Jesus had already taken a swipe at him in the teaching he gave to the guests. Now he singled out his host in the presence of his guests.
The scene concludes with Jesus delivering a teaching on the Kingdom. Speaking to the host, but not excluding the guests, he makes a reference to Isaiah’s description of the messianic time. For Jesus, this was THE sign of the arrival of the Kingdom. “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their in- ability to repay you. For you will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous.
I wonder what Jesus would get up and say if he were invited to a dinner at the White House.