Behind today’s second reading are three people who were confronted with a difficult decision. Because they had decided to become a follower of Jesus they had to face the reality of what his words really meant in their lives. Jesus’ teachings forced them to face issues that they probably would not have chosen.
Paul wrote the letter to Philemon when he was in prison. It is about a runaway slave Paul met and converted. Onesimus wasn’t just any slave. He was a slave to Philemon; Philemon was a friend of Paul’s and a Christian. Paul is sending Onesimus back to his owner. Paul must have thought and prayed long and hard before making that decision. Read the Letter to Philemon and you can see the love Paul has for Onesimus. Why would he have him go back to his slave owner?
Then there is Onesimus. He had escaped from a life of slavery. He was free from physical bondage. Now Paul is challenging him. Don’t be on the run. You will always be looking over your shoulder. To be true to Christ means you have to be true to yourself. Did being a Christian mean that he had to give up his freedom and own up to his past? He had no idea what he would encounter when he returned to his master. By law Philemon could do whatever he wished with a runaway slave – even have him executed.
Then there is the struggle Philemon had. Slavery was acceptable in his world. It wasn’t until 1800 years later that Christians and society really began to see slavery as evil. Paul encouraged Philemon to accept Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother. According to the social order Philemon had lost a valuable possession and could use it any way he wished when it was returned. Now Paul wants him to treat Onesimus not as a possession but as a brother. It was unheard of. Then what if his other slaves wanted to be baptized? Shouldn’t they be freed too? What does it mean to follow Jesus?
Each of us is called to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to help others to do the same. That and only that is our purpose as Christians. Yes, we have chosen to do that in this community, within the context of the Catholic Church, but it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that must be central to everything we do and say.
What about you? How is Jesus calling you to live the Gospel? What is the hardest thing to accept about the teachings of Jesus – not the hardest thing to accept in the church – but the most difficult Gospel teaching. What is getting in the way of accepting that teaching?
Today’s Gospel tells us to sit down and consider the cost of being a follower of Jesus. A couple of examples of people calculating the cost of a venture are used. Only after the cost is calculated should the project begin. Even then there will be unforeseen problems. Each time we encounter a new issue or a nagging problem we know we have to recommit ourselves to the project. We have already committed ourselves to living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Where are we in this project? Are there some issues that we ignore hoping they might go away? Or we’ll deal with them next year?
Living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not for the faint hearted or the weak. It is only for those who will face life head on and grapple with the Gospel. And that’s not easy. But that is what we have been called to do by our baptism. That is what being a Christian really means.