Sep 8, 2019: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Wisdom 9:13-18b

Who can know God’s counsel,
or who can conceive what the LORD intends?
For the deliberations of mortals are timid,
and unsure are our plans.
For the corruptible body burdens the soul
and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.
And scarce do we guess the things on earth,
and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty;
but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?
Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.

Today’s first reading is a poem that declares the various limitations of human wisdom.

The book of Wisdom is unique in the Bible for having a Hellenized Jew as its author. It was probably written in Alexandria in about 50 BC. Although it was written in Greek, the form of argument used here is found often in Hebrew literature.  It argues from the more important to the less important, or vice versa. Another example of this would be Luke 23:31: “If these things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what our LORD intends?

The passage begins with a description of how difficult it is to know God’s ways, in the form of two parallel rhetorical questions.  The intended answer to both is, of course, “no one.”  No one can fathom the mind of God; no one can know God’s will.  Yet we are required to live according to it.  Therefore, somehow the will of God will have to be revealed to us.

For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.

Here we see the Greek notion of the superiority of the immaterial soul, or mind, over the corruptible body.  We are creatures of the earth limited by the elements of our own constitution.

And scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty;

In most cases, certainty does not precede our actions but follows them.  The human wisdom that we value so highly is, in reality, produced by trial and error.

but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?

Humans have a tendency to seek wisdom beyond reflecting on their own experiences.  We seek to know the things of God, the mysteries of heaven.

Here the author is saying: we can scarcely discover the meaning of the things of the earth — how can we expect to search out the things of heaven?

Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given Wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?

We will attain the wisdom we so sorely seek only if God bestows it upon us. The author’s use of holy spirit is a synonym for wisdom, not as a reference to the third person of the Trinity, a concept that was developed later.

And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.

Because God gave his people wisdom, their paths are made straight; they can know and act in ways that the Lord intends.

2nd Reading – Philemon 9-10, 12-17

I, Paul, an old man,
and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus,
urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus,
whose father I have become in my imprisonment;
I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.
I should have liked to retain him for myself,
so that he might serve me on your behalf
in my imprisonment for the gospel,
but I did not want to do anything without your consent,
so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.
Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while,
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.
So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.

Today’s second reading is the only passage in all the liturgy from Paul’s very short letter to Philemon. In it, Paul asks Philemon, a rich Christian slave-owner, to welcome back a runaway slave who has become a Christian and who has been serving Paul.

In Paul’s time there were about 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire.  Fear of an uprising led the citizenry to make the laws concerning slaves strict. Runaway slaves could be punished by torture, death, or both.  Anyone who harbored a runaway slave could be liable for any loss that the slave-owner suffered.

I, Paul, an old man,

Commentators do not agree on the meaning of presbutēs; some translate it as “ambassador,” while others render it as “elder” or “old man,” as here.  Since Paul makes it a point not to use his authority in this matter, ambassador does not seem to fit.

and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus,

Coupled with his introduction as presbutēs, Paul reminds Philemon that he is even now suffering for the sake of Christ.  Both add a certain gravity to his request.

“Paul has not used ‘prisoner for Christ Jesus’ in any other epistle as a part of his name, though he has used it in Ephesians and in Philippians as a form of proclamation. Thus, I think it of more importance that he says he is a prisoner of Christ Jesus than an apostle. Indeed, the apostles gloried that they were worthy to suffer abuse for the name of Jesus Christ.” [Saint Jerome (A.D. 386}, Commentary on the Epistle to Philemon]

urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment;

It happened that Onesimus was put into the same jail as Paul.  Paul apparently converted, instructed, and baptized him, hence Paul’s claim to be his spiritual father.

I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.

Paul further personalizes the request, referring to Onesimus as his own heart. The two had apparently become close.

I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel,

Some commentators see this as Paul hinting that Philemon might consider freeing Onesimus so that he could return to Paul — not as a slave but alongside the missionaries.

“Paul indicates that had he kept Onesimus, the result would have been that he could serve Paul as an extension of Philemon’s service and thus have been a source of gain for Philemon.” [Theodore of Mopsuestia (died A.D. 428), Commentary on Philemon]

but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.

Paul has been criticized by many for not condemning the practice of slavery, but he couldn’t accomplish much by doing that.  He was already in jail, and condemning slavery would have only made matters worse. The expectation that Christ would soon come again also militated against social reforms.

Instead, the argument he makes and the line of action he suggests attacks the philosophy that formed the foundation of slavery. Paul relies on Philemon’s own understanding of mutual brotherhood (and sisterhood) in Christ to transform his attitude toward his slave.

Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while,

A euphemism for his running away.  Verse 18 (not included in this reading) suggests that he may have also stolen something from Philemon in the process of escaping.

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.

Paul reinterprets Onesimus’ escape, seeing it as an occasion of significant change. Though the escape was a criminal act in itself, it resulted in the transformation of a pagan into a follower of Jesus Christ. Now that both Philemon and Onesimus are baptized, they have a new relationship with its own demands — including the demand that all other relationships (including master/slave) give way to kinship in Christ.

By presenting Onesimus as “brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you” voiced an idea that was revolutionary in that day and destined to break down worldly barriers of division “in the Lord.”

“As a man” is literally, “in the flesh.”  Paired with “in the Lord,” Paul is describing the natural and spiritual orders of Onesimus.

Although it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the human race showed that it realized that slavery is the evil thing that it is, slavery’s death-knell had been sounded when a slave-owner was requested to treat his slave as a brother on the grounds of religious love.

So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.

Paul has already taught that there are no longer slaves or free persons but that all were children of God (see Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11).  He now appeals to Philemon following the advice he gave elsewhere, as in his “hymn to love” in 1 Corinthians 13.  (The entire letter to Philemon consists of 25 verses; in this short format, there are four references to love, plus two to Paul’s heart.)  Paul challenges Philemon to witness to his own belief in this teaching, asking Philemon to treat Onesimus as the Christian brother he has now become, rather than the slave he once was.

“The slave is now returning more faithful than ever – additionally, a new relationship exists between them: both are now Christians, related in a way that not even death can undo. “Onesimus’ flight has become the source of good things to him.” [Theodoret of Cyr (died A.D. 466), Commentary on Philemon]

Gospel – Luke 14:25-33

Great crowds were traveling with Jesus,
and he turned and addressed them,
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion?
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’
Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?
But if not, while he is still far away,
he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.
In the same way,
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.”

The cost of discipleship is the basis of teaching in today’s gospel reading.  Being a disciple of Christ requires three things: subordination of everything to commitment to Jesus, acceptance of the cross, and relinquishment of all possessions.

Great crowds were traveling with Jesus,

People came out to observe the sensation created by Jesus, who is now on his way to Jerusalem.  They thought he was on the way to an empire; he knew he was on the way to the cross.

and he turned and addressed them, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

The first condition for following Jesus: putting commitment to him above everything else.

It is important to note that in this passage the word hate means to “love less.” The meaning is clearer in Matthew’s wording of the same teaching: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…” (Matthew 10:37).  We also see this expressed in Jacob’s sentiments toward his two wives in Genesis 29:30-31. The expression probably springs from a Semitic idiom that refers to first loyalty, which implies that in choosing one thing, one thereby excludes everything else.

Jesus is reminding his disciples that their response to his call must be a wholehearted “yes,” a message that has occurred at least four times previously in Luke’s gospel (5:1-11; 9:23-27, 57-62; 12:51-53). Nothing, neither the closest family ties nor the love of one’s own life, can conflict with one’s commitment to him.

That being said, there is no thought here that one cannot love both God and neighbor; in fact, we are commanded to love both.

Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

The second condition of discipleship is the willingness to carry one’s cross.  Jesus’ total commitment to his mission resulted in his own suffering and death; the commitment of those who would follow him can be no less.

The Greek word used here for “take up” is identical to the one used by John when he describes Jesus on the way to Calvary. Luke here expects a very close, even potentially literal, following of Jesus in his suffering and death.

Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’ Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.

Jesus reminds those in the crowd that they should consider the cost of discipleship before they make a commitment. Temporary enthusiasm isn’t enough. As such, they should not rush into discipleship without first examining what is involved, shouldn’t step forward unless they are willing and able to expend all they have to carry through with their decision.

In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”

The third condition: willingness to relinquish all possessions in order to possess and be possessed by Christ.  Note that Jesus implies a logical connection with the previous statements (“in the same way”).  This is not a new or different requirement; in a sense, it contains within itself the other two.  The connection seems to be a willingness to whatever is necessary. Philemon’s willingness to renounce his rights as Onesimus’ owner (from our second reading) is a great example of an opportunity to serve Christ by renouncing possessions.

In summary, total commitment to Jesus requires the willingness to give up their comfort, security, and stability. These values are opposite, of course, from worldly values.  To sift through these complex demands, both in Christ’s time and now, we need a wisdom from above, as from our first reading.

Connections and Themes

The overarching theme for this Sunday is choices.  The Wisdom tradition, from which the first reading is taken, is rooted in the fact that life is a series of choices.  The epistle and gospel reading provide us with examples of the way Christians should choose.

Priorities. We live in a world that seems to offer limitless choices.  Opportunities for work and living, for education and recreation, for entertainment and relaxation abound.  We are even free to choose the values we would espouse to support our choices.  There is so much from which to choose, and all of it is presented as acceptable by the world.  Discipleship demands that, in the face of all this, we keep our priorities straight.  We must seek the counsel of wisdom so that we choose the right path.  True wisdom is knowing where to put our energies, how to focus our attention, where and to whom to commit ourselves.  In the gospel, Jesus insists that we must be single-minded.  We must cling to the one thing necessary, and that one thing is authentic discipleship.

Throughout these days of Ordinary Time, we have been looking at what discipleship requires.  It may be demanding, but it is not impossible, for we are given the grace of God to sustain us and the community of other disciples as a support.  All of the readings promise that if we make the right choices, our lives will unfold in ways that will enrich us.  The challenge is knowing which choices are right, and then having the courage to make them.  In order to do this, we need the wisdom that comes from God, the wisdom sketched in the gospel reading.  We must be willing to put our lives on the line for the choices we make.

Choices.  In choosing Jesus, we choose other things as well.  We choose new relationships with the very people to whom we have already been committed.  Those who were slaves, or lower class, or employees, or providers of service, are now regarded as brothers and sisters in Christ.  They may continue performing the same service as before, but we now perceive them in a new way, and we now treat them as equals.  Those who are related to us through blood are now considered also bound to us by the grace of God.  Our former ties are not severed, they are augmented.

In choosing Jesus, we also choose the cross.  We choose to live in a way that calls us to travel the high road: to forgive offenses committed against us; to live simply so others can simply live; to take responsibility for the moral character of society.  This way of living is very demanding, yet not very rewarding in the context of this world.  We might even lose the little we have.  In choosing Jesus, we willingly relinquish our hold on the people and the goods we cherish, lest they rival our commitment to him.

The fleeting character of life.  Throughout the Wisdom tradition, the sages all place the meaning of life within the context of its brevity and the suddenness of its ending.  When our lives are over, what will we have gained from living?  From our possessions?  From the towers we construct?  From the battles we have won? They will seem like the grass that wilts and fades, like the corruptible body we have been born with.  What will it have been worth?

The realization of our finiteness and the transitory nature of life should help us set our priorities right and should give us the courage to remain faithful to them.  In the face of this, it becomes clear that living in right relationships, following the straight path, choosing the wisdom of a covenant with God, is the only way to spend the brief time we have here on earth.

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