We’ve just heard in the second reading from St Paul’s letter to Philemon. We don’t hear from or encounter this letter too often at Mass, because it’s one of the shortest works in the Bible. In spite of this, it is actually an amazing story which I’d like us to dwell on for a few minutes.
I’m just going to ask you to take a journey back to 2000 years ago. Picture the scene. We have the backdrop of ancient Rome. A huge, powerful, wealthy and growing empire. But this wealth and power was only in the hands of the very few. We all know about the charismatic and ruthless leaders, and the beautiful art, architecture and poetry we have received from that time. Great advances in building, science and engineering happened then. But all these great things came at a cost. And that cost was the human person.
Most people lived in poverty. In filthy, disease-ridden, and not very comfortable conditions. Believe it or not, there were more people who were slaves in the Roman Empire than people who weren’t. Most of us here today, and most people we know in our lives would have been slaves in ancient Rome. And slaves did not have any rights.
Enter St Paul. He wrote this letter from prison, put there because he was preaching Christ, and he’s writing it to a person called Philemon. We presume Philemon was rich as he had many slaves, and one of those slaves was called Onesimus, and that’s who Paul is writing about in the reading we just heard.
Philemon became a Christian when Paul had stayed with him. But one of his slaves, Onesimus, turned out to be useless, and may have even stolen some money from him. So Onesimus ran away to avoid being caught, and he ended up staying with Paul in another city. While he was with Paul, he was a changed man and he too became a follower of Christ. He now would like to return to Philemon’s house, but here comes the big problem. It was a capital offence for a slave to steal from their master, and so if Onesimus goes back, Philemon is obliged by law to hand him over to the authorities where he will be put to death. So Paul writes this letter to help Onesimus and remind Philemon how Jesus would act in this situation.
Just for a moment try to put yourself in Philemon’s shoes. You live in a society where nobody cares about slaves. The law expects you to punish this slave, Onesimus. If you don’t, your neighbours will start to gossip about you and you may lose your reputation in the community.
But you are a Christian.
That means you should try to see Christ in every human person. There is no longer slave and master, but brother and sister. Christ gave up everything for you, he died for you, he has given you himself and eternal life. There is pressure on both sides as you want to do the right thing but that might mean some suffering.
What do you do?
Now put yourself in Onesimus’ shoes. You know that society doesn’t value you. You know that if you go back to Philemon, you are in danger of death. It is much safer to stay with Paul. Can you trust that Philemon is a good enough Christian to welcome you back?
Do you have the courage and the trust in Christ to take that risk?
This is what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel. When we are making the decision to follow him and put him at the centre of our lives so that he can work through us, it is a huge decision. It is a life-changing decision. It affects all the choices we make in the present and in the future. But we cannot just throw ourselves willy-nilly into being his disciples. We have to stop and reflect and work out how ready we are, and what needs to change in our lives so that we become closer to Christ. We can’t decide to build something then stop before it’s finished because we didn’t plan it first.
Philemon decided to take Onesimus back because he had trust in God. Onesimus went back to Philemon because he had trust in God. But how do we develop this trust ourselves? How do we take a risk and be countersigns to things in the world that are not of God? The answer sounds simple but takes a lifetime.
We have to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
This means spending time with him in prayer, putting him at the centre of our lives, so that we treat every human person as if they were Christ.