Twenty-Third Sunday: Loving the Slaves

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to hate our family.  It’s a shocking passage.  And an interesting aspect of Luke: Matthew only tells us not to love our family more than Jesus, Mark skips the passage altogether—and Luke tells us to hate our family.

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The Lectionary perfectly pairs this Gospel with our one reading from Paul’s letter to Philemon, the shortest book of the New Testament, which is also about the transformation of relationships. 

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Philemon is the master of the slave Onesimus, who has been working with Paul.  Paul’s discussion of this slave is thick with irony.  Paul appeals for Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother, not a slave.  But he says he sends him back to Philemon because “I did not want to do anything without your consent”: Paul affirms Philemon’s freedom to make his own decisions—maybe Philemon can do the same for Onesimus.  “So that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary”—by freely freeing Onesimus to do what is voluntary, not what is forced.

Onesimus serves Paul, but with diakonia, chosen service, not as a doulos, a slave.  And Paul, himself in chains, in prison, commands Onesimus not as a slave master, but as a father.  He does not use Onesimus, but calls him “my own heart” (the Greek is splagchna, “my guts,” where I really feel things).

Paul appeals to Philemon to be “a partner,” a koinonos, who participates in the koinonia, communion, with which he has opened the letter. 

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Philemon adds to our reading from Luke the idea of transformed relationships.  Luke’s stark language, “if anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,” makes us think of ending relationships.  Paul shows us that our relationships must be transformed—radically, so that the one we viewed as a slave, the person we trampled on, becomes our “beloved brother,” and the flesh relationships, our earthly beloved brothers, melt away into the real love of the Christian communion. 

That sounds pleasant—but it is very hard.  One can imagine the division it would bring to a household if, for example, you started freeing slaves, or giving up property, or befriending those your family thinks are beneath you.  Our Gospel reminds us that this kind of transformed relationship is a way of carrying our cross, of dying to the old man and beginning a radically new life.

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Our Gospel opens with “great crowds traveling with Jesus”: a communion of friendship with the Master, which is a good thing.  But Jesus “turned”—or, “twisted around”—“and addressed them.”  He walks with them as friends, but he also turns to address them as Master.  To walk with Jesus we need to accept his authority to challenge our life.  Many among those “great crowds” are happy to be his friend, but less happy to be his disciples.

The shocking line, about hating father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters—and even our own life—is only one sentence, though an important one.

The next sentence proclaims that we have to carry our cross.  We are still on the road to Jerusalem.  Just before he set out on that road (9:51) he had announced that he was going to be killed (9:22) and so, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (9:23).  He predicts only his own death—for his disciples, he predicts the cross, which means carrying on our own two shoulders the implement of our death. 

Love is lovely.  But the love of Christ passes through the way of the Cross.  To say that it requires hating our earthly loves is to say that they must die with Christ before they can rise again.

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He says the same thing another way with two parables.  If you’re going to build a tower, you need to calculate the cost—the cost of discipleship—and lay the foundations.  Christian love isn’t just happily doing what comes naturally.  It means embracing the cross.

Searching the Scriptures

The second parable takes another angle.  Heading into this battle, we discover that we are outnumbered.  We cannot win—this is a battle where we will die.  Realizing that, we need to “ask for peace terms.”  When you’re outnumbered, those peace terms mean asking the other party what you have to do to avoid annihilation.  In the Christian life, on the one hand, we realize that we need the Strong Man’s help: the things that make for peace are the gifts of Christ. 

But on the other hand, to accept those gifts is to accept the transformation he demands.  And in the final sentence of our reading, the demand is not to hate our family, but to “renounce all his possessions”: all the relationships we metaphorically cling to, and all the material things we literally cling to.  Somehow, like Philemon, we have to free our slaves, find those we treat as less than human and embrace them as our brothers.  The love of Christ comes only through renunciation.

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Our first reading, from Wisdom, then, reminds us of something essential.  Weighted down by our bodily concerns, we can scarcely make wise decisions about earthly things—so to know higher things, the things of God, we need to shut up and listen.  We who walk on the road with Christ need to let him turn and speak to us as Master, and demand of us what we would never embrace on our own. 

What slaves is Jesus calling you to befriend?

eric.m.johnston

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