Beware of literal interpretation of Scripture. Beware, too, of reading contemporary societal values into an ancient biblical text! Both literal interpretation and imposing the values of your present day on a totally different culture will lead a person into false interpretation of the scriptures.
The second reading of the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, cycle C, in the Roman Catholic lectionary is a prime example of how literal interpretation and imposing contemporary societal values on the story of St. Paul sending a “slave” back to his “master” can be badly misinterpreted. This short letter of St. Paul to a Christian head of a household was interpreted as God’s Word approving of the practice of slavery of Negroes in the 19th Century United States before and during the Civil War! Society, for the most part, has since come to understand, or begin to understand such slavery of human beings as a timeless moral evil. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us just 50 years ago that our nation still held warped, immoral opinions about the relationship of races and needed a conversion of heart to God’s Kingdom ordering of relationships between humans.
Briefly, the letter of Paul to Philemon concerns a runaway slave (more of a kind of indentured servant member of household) who choses to divorce himself from the relationship with his master and the household without the consent of the other partner. He breaks a contract and violates a legal relationship that was entered into by both parties.
When Onesimus the “slave” meets Paul in prison, he becomes a Christian. What seems odd to our modern sensibilities is that instead of helping the slave escape, Paul sends Onesimus back to his master! The master would have every right to abuse or discipline his runaway servant and so surely Onesimus was frightened of the prospect and needed some protection. Paul, in his “letter of recommendation” slyly informs the master that slave is still employee, still has household duties, still subject to Philemon’s rule and will but that the relationship is changed. The master is to respect slave in a new way and treat him as “brother,” as a person equal in value and dignity, not to be looked down upon or seen as a kind of possession or object to be used for the master’s benefit. In fact, the master must now serve the servant. Paul does this in a rather manipulative way and reminds Philemon that Philemon owes Paul a favor for saving his hide, so to speak, by enabling the master to come to know Jesus Christ and salvation. Philemon, the master is to serve Onesimus the slave as Jesus the master has served Philemon by dying on the cross and defeating death.
So, Onesimus the slave still has the same function or job description in the ordering of the household, but the members of the household have a new relationship as “equals.” Paul reminds his letter recipient Philemon that in fact he and the slave Onesimus are equals, both servants of Jesus the one master. Now they must serve each other, for Jesus the master served his slaves (disciples) by dying on the cross.
Here is a reminder that the church is a household of believers, of every different color stripe, talent and ability, every kind of job or lots in life that many continue even after their conversion to Christ but there is a new order of relationship that is different and beyond family bonds. All are equal members of the Body of Christ, different vocations, all empowered by the spirit to build up the household into a place where Christ is the head who has performed the work of salvation earning us salvation and who leads us to the Kingdom.
Jesus poses a question, then, in the Gospel of this Sunday, “Are you willing to take a chance on this new order of relationship of humanity? Are you willing to let go of being able to control others, be the powerful member of a relationship, the beneficiary of your power to control others and instead serve, too. Jesus, when he says a disciple must “hate” father and mother, he is not talking about an emotion where a child despises the parent and leaves the household severing the relationship. Again, there’s the literalism trap.
Jesus, by inviting us to take up the cross in this Gospel, is inviting us to die to those destructive structures of human relationship where one party has the power and the other is at mercy of the power holder, always in fear of being used and abused and taken advantage of, not in control of their destiny. The cross of Jesus ushered in a new ordering of human relationships as the story of Philemon and Onesimus exemplifies.
In the Kingdom of God, there is no slave or master. There is no powerful versus powerless whose worth is seen only in what the poor masses can provide the people on the top of the hill. In the realm of Jesus’ rule there is no first world using the third world where the more developed countries take the resources of the less developed to supply its comfortable lifestyle while others can hardly gather what they need to live. There is great cost to be considered before living in the Kingdom of God here and now! We must view every human life as valuable. We might have to let go of some of our creature comforts. Nations and religions and ethnic groups will have to give up the illusion of superiority and violence as a solution to conflict. As a favorite author I discovered in the seminary, Frederick Buechner, wrote in the book called Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC describing what “Gospel” means (I’m paraphrasing since I don’t have the book handy as I write this), Gospel is Greek for Good News. It’s a bit like starting a story, “I’ve got good news and bad news…” The Good News of Jesus is always bad news for those in power! Or as Mary, the Mother of Jesus says in her song, the Magnificat, “God has lifted up the lowly and brought down the powerful.” (Luke 1:52)
Some readers might say, “Father, this sounds like socialism or communism at worst or pie in the sky dreaming of everybody sitting down holding hands, singing Kum-by-ya! It’s pie in the sky stuff.”
No, it’s the challenge of the Gospel, to live a life seeking to convert the world to the vision of Jesus by our participation in the household of practicing Catholic Christians and sharing in its mission to proclaim Good News in word and deed. It’s the world issued in by the master killed on a cross who was powerless, who inaugurates a whole new order of existence. Here is Good news, the way to a new life, even in this realm of time and space, the rehearsal room for eternity’s household.
All are servants to one master who serves all. Are you ready to risk your life and pay the cost to help his Kingdom come?