TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2019
ONESIMUS, A SYMBOL OF HUMAN DIGNITY AND RRESPECT
Readings: 1st- Wis. 9:13-18b; 2nd- Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Gospel- Lk.14:25-33
Doesn’t it take wisdom to know God’s intention for us? Doesn’t it take wisdom to know that the true test of discipleship is in the Cross? Doesn’t it demand wisdom to understand that God wills all men and women to be treated with dignity and respect? Those are messages from today’s readings. And the book of Wisdom tells us in the first reading, “Or whoever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?”
Christ invites us to three different stages of discipleship in the gospel, requirements that seem harsh and totally out of the human definition of convenience. First is this, “If anyone comes after me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26). How is that possible and what is Christ asking for? We are told that Christ is applying some “Semitic idiom” here. You know that Jesus loves to speak in parables and would always pick the brains of his followers in order to get his messages across. Jesus is inviting his disciples to absolute, unwavering commitment. It’s the same as the statement about the greatest commandment where he says, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Again, he clarifies it in a parallel passage thus, "Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37).
The second stage of discipleship is to carry our cross and come after Jesus, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Wisdom makes us to identify our cross and as well to carry it, and to follow Jesus. Remember the foolish virgins (Matt. 25:7-13). Their problem is the lack of wisdom to recognize their responsibility, failing to have oil in their lamps. Only you can light your lamp, no one would do it for you. Only you can carry your cross. Jesus wants each of us to look up to him while carrying our cross. Hence, he says, “… and I will give you rest.” In the passage, Jesus uses the parable of the man who prepares to build a tower and the king marching into battle to explain the importance of preparedness for discipleship. The trials of the cross can only be overcome by those who prefer Jesus in their lives.
Third requirement is renunciation of possessions, “anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” Mind you, Jesus says, “all,” here, not half, not quarter. He challenges us to detach from everything that hinders our commitment to following him. All human relationships, material possessions, positions of power and honor that do not lead to Jesus should be renounced. We can say that God is jealous of anything that competes with loving him, anything that takes our attention. God wants us to listen to him and do his will.
This connects us to the second reading where Paul speaks directly to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. Paul speaks as an old man and as a prisoner for the sake of the gospel. Onesimus is said to be a runaway slave from his master Philemon. Returning to his master would attract severe punishment for Onesimus, hence, Paul intervenes on his behalf. Paul starts by orchestrating his relationship with Onesimus, describing him as “my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment.” Clearly, Paul has no blood relationship with Onesimus but reminisces the spiritual connection which they share. Paul appeals to Philemon’s emotion and his reason. And finally, he challenges Philemon, “that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you.” That way, Paul presses on the point that, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
This letter is a passionate appeal for the dignity of the human person. Paul wants us to recognize the importance of advocacy in the call to discipleship. He speaks to Philemon just what the gospel demands of him and requests that the dignity which is due for every person be accorded to Onesimus. He should not be treated as inferior or as a slave with no rights and privileges. Does Philemon listen to Christ’s words? It looks like Paul’s request received a positive outcome as seen in the final words of that passage, “With trust in your compliance, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Phil. 1:21).
Paul represents advocacy. Onesimus represents human dignity and freedom. Philemon represents power and authority. We must speak out like Paul against threats to human dignity beginning from birth. We are invited to recognize the value of human life from conception to natural death. Sometimes, it becomes a cross to defend and support life. That is why the pregnant mother, who, even when she doesn’t feel comfortable with the baby in the womb, still has to carry the cross of pregnancy with faith and optimism. All she needs to do is to value the dignity which the child has and appreciate the divine obligation to help bring the unborn to life. The families of the terminally ill carry their cross of providing comfort and support to their sick relative- dad, mom, wife, husband, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, friend-. Caring for such sick persons can be demanding but it is a divine duty and responsibility; “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
In the United States, the history of slavery seems part of the past, but the scars are still visibly present. We must continue to work towards healing the scars created by slavery and racism. We must accept one another as Paul encourages us. No difference between white and black. No difference between the dignity of one race and another. It does not matter which ethnic or racial group we belong. The greatest privilege is not being White or Black or Hispanic, Europe, Asian, or African. The greatest privilege is being the child of God by baptism. Christ says to Philemon today, “that you might have him back forever.” And I say to you listening to me today, “that you might have (one another) forever” not as black, not as Spanish, not as African, not even as white, but as beloved brother and sister in Christ Jesus. In the words of the great apostle, “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1). That is the meaning of discipleship. We must promote the dignity of life in each other as Jesus demands. That is the Onesimus’ challenge; the call to disciples.