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Readings: 15th Sunday after Trinity

30 August 2013


Proper 18: Deuteronomy 30.15-end; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14.25-33

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 world.

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 other.

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 service.

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 messenger.

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 Paul.

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 so.

Forthcoming Events

13-14 September 2021
Festival of Preaching
Speakers include Barbara Brown Taylor, Alister McGrath, and Sam Wells.

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

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