Proper 18: Deuteronomy 30.15-end; Philemon 1-21; Luke
God, who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit upon your
Church in the burning fire of your love: grant that your people may
be fervent in the fellowship of the gospel that, always abiding in
you, they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OUR prayer in the collect to be fervent in the fellowship of the
gospel raises the question of with whom we are to be in fellowship.
The answer in the epistle is rather startling to people in a
society with slavery as one of its building blocks. A slave owner
was to be fervent in the fellowship of the gospel with one of his
runaway slaves, who might also have defrauded him.
There are two cultural changes to bear in mind as we hear these
readings. Slavery in the Graeco-Roman world differed from that in
19th-century America, or, indeed, in parts of the world today,
where people are still enslaved in evil conditions.
Slavery, first-century style, while not something that we would
want to condone, was in some ways closer to medieval serfdom, with
its duties and relentless hard work, than it was to kidnap and
cruelty. Slaves could own property and, for some, especially those
with important masters, it was a way to make progress in the
Second, the idea of hating someone meant "love less than" rather
than "positively loathe", except where overt sin was involved. Thus
the Bible records that the patriarchs had favourite wives, and uses
the stark language of loving and hating (Genesis 29.30, 33) in a
way that we would not.
The cruelty of the choice in the film Sophie's Choice
was that, on arriving at Auschwitz, Sophie had to choose which of
her two children would be murdered, and which sent to a labour
camp. She loved both, and had protected both until then, but was
suddenly forced, in biblical language, to love one and hate the
That dreadful moment puts the question of priorities into sharp
focus; applied to Jesus's words, we begin to understand him as
speaking not about the depth of our love for our families, but
about our priorities when a choice has to be made between them and
God. This can occur in the context of life choices - for example,
the decision to serve God overseas, or to stay near to the family.
Either answer may be right, depending on the circumstances, but it
is then that we feel the full impact of our baptismal vows.
Jesus spoke to large crowds in generalities, albeit it hard
generalities: "Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and
children . . . cannot be my disciple." Paul, on the other hand,
spoke to one man in specifics: "I am appealing to you for my only
child . . . have him back no longer as a slave but as a beloved
brother." God's generous mercy has transformed relationships, and
we live in the context of the generosity that has given the Holy
Spirit to make us fervent, steadfast disciples who are active in
What does Paul want of Philemon? Onesimus, Philemon's slave, had
run away, possibly having stolen something from Philemon, and
somehow ended up with Paul, who converted him. Paul was sending him
back to face his master, not just as runaway slave, but as Paul's
Being uncertain about how Philemon would receive him, Paul wrote
this letter, with its appeal for generous mercy. In a pun on his
name ("Onesimus" meant "useful"), Paul described him as once
useless to Philemon - perhaps he was a hopeless slave - but now
useful to both Philemon and Paul.
Hearing this reading alongside the Gospel, we see Paul acting in
accordance with it; he had become a loving father to Onesimus, but,
loving God still more, was prepared to let him go. His subtle
appeal (vv.13-14) was for Philemon to let his love for God
similarly trump his claim on his slave, and to return him to
Whether or not Philemon took the hint, Paul asked him to receive
Onesimus as if he were Paul, which echoes Jesus's teaching that
whoever welcomed a child in his name welcomed him (Mark 9.37), as
well as last week's reminder that by entertaining strangers, some
have entertained angels without knowing it. Philemon might have
received far more than he expected by welcoming Onesimus back.
Deuteronomy commands us to give priority to our hearts'
orientation towards God, and then live out the consequences: to
love, walk, observe, live, and be blessed. This poignant and
personal letter gives us an insight into the personal cost of doing