Today is the only Sunday in the three-year lectionary cycle of readings when the second reading comes from Paul’s brief letter to Philemon. It seems that Philemon’s slave (Onesimus) has run away and has sought refuge with Paul. Paul reluctantly sends Onesimus back to Philemon with a letter. Notice that Paul did not criticize Philemon, nor did he write against the institution of slavery, which would permit Philemon to do whatever he wished to Onesimus even to the point of killing him. However, the manner in which Paul urged Philemon to welcome Onesimus speaks volumes. Rather than attack the institution in order to bring about the end of slavery, Paul chose to change the hearts of believers, who, in turn, would do what was necessary to end all such inhumane abuses of power. Paul asks Philemon to see Onesimus in a different way, as a brother.
Recently we just celebrated the “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. Slavery ended with the civil war and yet King pointed out ways in which people still felt enslaved and he spoke of a dream when we could look past color and see each other as brothers and sisters. That is Paul’s charge in his letter to Philemon.
We continue to have the challenge to work on social evils that enslave people today. In his reflection on today’s second reading John Martens writes,
We, however, do not face the conundrum of the legality of slavery or human trafficking as Paul did; they are illegal. Yet slavery flourishes underground, hidden away or hidden in plain sight. Our response is, therefore, clear and obvious: we must not engage in activities that allow the dehumanization of our brothers and sisters to continue, whether that is participating in pornography, the sex trade or other forms of exploitation of human beings. Our task is to work toward the conversion of both exploiter and exploited, just as Paul did, so that both human and spiritual freedom can be enjoyed by all. When we say no to sin, the cement of injustice starts to crumble (America)
We hear this reading in the context of today’s Gospel in which Jesus asks us to count the costs of being a disciple. He puts it in harsh terms. “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.” To “hate” in this sense, does not mean animosity but detachment in the strongest possible terms. Do we love God first and foremost? When we do it will lead us to a deeper love of others. We will see them as brothers and sisters. Unjust structures that dehumanize will not be tolerated.