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12th Sunday after Trinity

26 August 2022

4 September, Proper 18: Deuteronomy 30.15-end; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14.25-33

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IN THIS Gospel, Jesus tells the crowds about a builder and a king who have to calculate the cost of what they plan to do. Both of them begin by “sitting down”. The verb “sit down” looks redundant — after all, it makes no difference what posture is adopted for the business of reckoning costings.

In reality, though, people often need to “sit down” as a first step in dealing with something serious. It may be different in practice, but, on television, police officers always ask people to sit down before they deliver bad news. Here, the act of sitting down highlights the seriousness of the builder’s calculations — and the king’s. Getting it wrong could be ruinously expensive, or just plain ruinous.

This triggered a trawl through the Oxford English Dictionary for another idiomatic verb. I was thinking of a use of the verb “turn” which seems to be devoid of meaning, yet marks the seriousness of a conversation, especially in colloquial English. “She turned round and said to me. . . I turned round and said to her. . .” “Turned round” sounds redundant, but it turns static into kinetic, conversation into drama.

In the Gospel, the building of a tower and the planning of a war are already dramatic. Sitting down equates to calming down, resisting impulsive action or the risk of being carried away by enthusiasm and emotion. Jesus urges his followers not to act on impulse, but to think cautiously and act rationally. What is being demanded of them is extreme. If we all took v.33 wholly at face value, the churches would all be empty while monasteries and convents would be full to bursting.

This seriousness is further highlighted when we take on board the full force of v.27. Christians naturally think of hardships in terms of taking up their cross. But, at the time when Jesus delivers this teaching, the cross as a historical event lies in the future. Either he is exercising divine foresight, or Luke is muddling up who said what, to whom, and when.

If it is the latter, I can sympathise. I am constantly forgetting who said what and when. Sometimes, whole sentences slide through my brain without registering at all. “What time will you be home tonight?” “I just told you that.” Words can be slippery. And I am not alone in this experience.

When we come to Paul’s letter, words are certainly being slippery, but this time intentionally so. He plays on the name Onesimus (“useful”, 10-12: a male equivalent of function-based slave names such as “Sugar”, which I have highlighted here before). And he uses the rhetorical device of praeteritio: mentioning something in the process of mentioning that you are not going to mention it.

Paul writes: “I am bold enough . . . to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” His message is a command, but framed as loving counsel — a not uncommon stratagem in church circles now, as well as long ago. Philemon surely heard the real message: that it was his duty to treat Onesimus as a brother rather than punish him as a slave. Hence the shift between v.15 and v.20. The subtext is that Philemon, if he wants to be counted as Paul’s brother, must himself count Onesimus as a brother.

Paul needs to tread cautiously here, because he is interfering between a man and (according to laws of the time) his property. Subtlety, he hopes, will get the right response from Philemon without alienating him. It is the opposite of the style of persuasion found in the reading from Deuteronomy: no subtlety, no careful persuasion there. Instead the command is stark. On the one hand stand life, and prosperity, and blessings; on the other, death, and adversity, and curses.

The distinction is pure, absolute — which is what gives such impact to the challenge that it issues. It made me think of two old-fashioned hymns that are rarely sung now: One is “Who is on the Lord’s side?” (to a marvellous marching tune, Rachie). The other was perhaps a Sunday-school hymn, “Trust and obey”, with its tune of the same name, and its rousing chorus: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey”.

Being happy in Jesus may be a New Testament ideal, but the command to trust and obey is pure Deuteronomy.

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