Thank you to all my readers who have prayed for my son Joseph while he was in the hospital. The news, in short, is that he is home, but still waiting for something to heal – and there is no guarantee that it won’t heal without surgery. So please do keep praying for us!
As the second readings of the Sunday Lectionary take us through the Epistles of the New Testament, this week we get a taste of the shortest of Paul’s letters, Philemon. Philemon was the owner of the slave Onesimus. They were both Christians. Paul speaks here, in a different key from his other letters, about the relation of slaves and masters.
It is sometimes said that the value of science fiction (or also fantasy, like Tolkien or Lewis) is to put human beings in a circumstance very different from usual – and thus to discover what remains true of us in all circumstances. There is something of that in the differences of earthly vocation. Paul uses slave and master, the greatest distance, to bring out the essential sameness of human persons. Slave or master, here or in space or in Mordor, we are human beings.
In our reading, Paul has taken the slave Onesimus to be with him for a time. Now he sends him back to his master Philemon. He says, “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for awhile, 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, as a man and in the Lord.”
As things are moved around, we discover what they truly are. When Paul can dislodge Onesimus from the standard order of things, Philemon can rediscover him for what he truly is, a brother in Christ.
“Perhaps this is why.” The first reading is from the Wisdom of Solomon. Its central point is that the reason God’s plans don’t make sense to us is not because they are senseless, but because we are.
I have spoken of this problem before. Modern Christianity has a tendency to exalt God’s freedom and “will” as if God’s actions were without intelligence. But no, Scripture is so clear: everything makes perfect sense to God. Everything is orderly.
But for us, says our reading today, “the corruptible body burdens the soul, and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.”
There are at least two ways the “corruptible body” darkens our intellects. One is passion: we are so fixed on our own little expectations that we cannot sit back and discover God’s plan. A second is indeterminacy: we cannot follow through on our plans, nor can anything we see infallibly hit its mark, and so from our perspective, the world often seems random. But it is not random from God’s perspective. He has a plan. He has a way.
In our reading, Paul says, “perhaps this is why.” But our reading from Wisdom says, “Scarce do we guess the things on earth . . . . Who ever knew your counsel?”
Perhaps it is important that Paul says “perhaps.” We don’t know why things happen. We don’t know why Onesimus was born a slave, Philemon a master, some of us rich, some of us poor. We are so quick to assume we have it figured out, and so to harden our ways. “Onesimus deserves to be a slave!”
Instead we should focus on what we do know: God has called us to love. And he has a plan, for Onesimus and for Philemon, to discover his love.
Our Gospel is the infamous, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children,” etc.
This reading too focuses on knowledge. Most of the reading is taken up with Jesus’s metaphors of starting projects – building a tower or going to war – without proper planning. The punchline is: “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions” (or rather: “all that he has,” including family) “cannot be my disciple.” We should plan ahead, and recognize the cost of discipleship.
But we can go a step deeper in light of our other two readings. Obviously Jesus does not want us to hate our families. But he does want us to realize that we don’t know his plan. Like the slave master, we can be tempted to think we know exactly what role God wants us to play in the lives of our families. Things harden in our foolish little plans.
Let go, says God. It’s not that everything is random, that family doesn’t matter. But you don’t know what plans God has for your family, how he wants to use those relationships, where he will take you.
Even in the metaphor of army and building, it’s not that the wise men know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s that they have the flexibility to adapt to events.
God’s plans are richer than ours. Let us not be too quick to think we’ve got it all figured out.
What parts of your life would benefit if you weren’t so sure of what’s supposed to happen?