There is some important back-information which will help us all understand that 2nd reading better.
You probably remember Paul’s letter to the Colossians – well today’s letter is to Philemon. He was a church leader in that city. He must have been rich, since the church met in his house for Mass. Philemon was baptized by Paul…that’s an important point. Now, Onesimus was a slave who ran away from Philemon. Somehow, he ended up in jail in Rome where he met Paul and HE was also baptized.
This reading is a letter that Paul wrote to Philemon, but intended to be read right before Mass started….with the whole congregation present. Notice how Paul really lays it on thick. There’s a reason for that which we’ll discuss.
Also see if you can figure out the Gospel – it’s kinda confusing – but there is a connection with the other two readings.
A wise deacon taught me that sometimes the very first phrase in the reading can give us a wealth of information. "Great Crowds were following Jesus".... yeah - so? Why were great crowds following? … Because, they had been fed the fishes and loaves. Because they had seen the miracles and healings, some of them MAY have been intrigued by what Jesus was saying... but mostly, they followed because of the free food they enjoyed. Jesus took this teachable moment to put an end to the idea that following him was all about the easy life.
His teaching this day would have been almost 'stinging' to the 'great crowd'.... “hate your father and mother”.... “pick up your cross”.... “renounce all your possessions”. Gee, Jesus – you really know how to make yourself popular with the ‘great crowd’. Then there's those two parables about building a Tower or going into Battle. What's that all about?
The 'obvious' interpretation is that following Jesus is NOT a cake walk. Being a disciple will cost us no less than everything. In comparison to God, EVERYthing is second – including family, social status, possessions – everything.
While that is a valid interpretation, and I could stop right there - I'm thinking there is a deeper meaning here: I’ll call it “unwise wisdom”. In order to make my point, we need to do a deep dive into the 2nd reading from Philemon, so hold on:
In the second reading, Paul is laying it on thick – almost ordering Philemon to free his slave Onesimus. On one hand, it seems like Paul is being kinda pushy… on the other hand, he has good reason. Paul is Philemon’s spiritual father…. He had baptized Philemon when he started the church in Colossae. The Christians met at Philemon’s house for Mass each week… which means he was wealthy enough to have a biggest house in town. And that implies that he must have been a business man – because to make much money in those days, he would have had to be in favor with the Roman authorities. All of these details will be important in a minute.
Philemon had a slave, Onesimus, who ran away – probably something he shouldn’t have done – BUT while in Rome, he met Paul who converted him to Christianity. Paul saw that the wisdom of God would require that we pay all of our debts….Remember Jesus said if you come to the altar and remember your brother has something against you, go first and be reconciled, and then come back to the altar. So if Onesimus really was going to live the life of a disciple, he had to set things straight – BUT he must have been DEATHLY afraid of returning to Philemon – he KNEW what the punishment was for what he had done. A runaway slave could have their foot cut off. Yikes!!! From a worldly perspective, Onesimus should keep running – but from God’s wisdom perspective – he HAD to go back – to make things right – even at the risk of his life.
Paul knows that in order for Onesimus to be a true disciple, he needs to right any wrongs and ask forgiveness of anyone he's hurt. He had wronged Philemon…. You see, Slavery in those days was not like slavery in America where we captured innocent people and forced them into slavery – instead, in that culture – if you owed somebody something, you would become a slave or sell your family as slaves to pay it back. You still had rights – and could do business – and could buy back your freedom. However, there was a debt to be paid – so to run away was to NOT pay your debt… and that was the same as stealing: which obviously is against one of the 10 commandments – and also against the Roman law.
Philemon has every right to punish Onesimus. In fact, it was culturally EXPECTED that you would cut off his foot. If Philemon was to go easy on Philemon, the rest of the community would look down at him – ostracize him – maybe even stop doing business with him. I mean - think what message this sends to the other slaves in town!!! This could start an uprising!! That gives this a whole new level of urgency, doesn’t it? If Philemon doesn't punish Onesimus, he might lose his livelihood and he and his family will suffer. Doesn’t sound very wise, does it? Why would Paul ask him to do something so stupid?
Because Paul recognizes that the wisdom of the world ain't the wisdom of God. It’s unwise for Onesimus to return – and it’s unwise for Philemon to forgive him…. But Paul sees a different wisdom…. The wisdom of God…. Which is “unwise wisdom”.
Why would a king stay in the fight with a king that has twice the troops? Human wisdom would say to run from that fight…. No way you can win. But what would the wisdom of God say? Maybe God will work a miracle and we win…. Or maybe God needs our blood to be the seed of His Church.
Why would we start building a tower if we didn’t think we could complete it? Again – the world’s wisdom says that’s unwise – but what would the wisdom of God say? Maybe God asks us to build the tower as a way to reveal His Glory. He can’t work the miracle unless we start… Reminds me of a quote: God can’t steer a parked car.
Notice Jesus doesn’t tell us whether the person WOULD build the tower or not – or whether the king SHOULD go into battle…. The important part is they each take the time to seek wisdom before deciding. RECOGNIZE the cost, yes – but don’t let that stop you.
Allow God to make those decisions, because like the First reading says “the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.” In other words, We humans are too easily influenced – we are driven by our base desires for food, comfort, sex, power, and various addictions. If we let the HUMAN desires drive our decision-making, we will miss the grace that God wants to pour into this moment.
I remember the story of two warring nations – they were enemies to the death for a couple of centuries. But one day, a ship sent out a distress call – and a ship from the enemy country answered that distress call and saved hundreds of people – safely delivering them to their homeland. They took a huge risk doing this: the distress call could have been a trick to lure them closer.
But in the end, peace began that day. This unwise wisdom shocked an entire generation into realizing that the other country WASN’T evil – that they really were good people with compassionate hearts. Within a year, the war was over and these countries became allies.
How’s that apply to our everyday lives? Seek ‘unwise wisdom’. Look at anything that’s supposedly common knowledge and question whether God’s wisdom would agree.
For example, It’s common knowledge that we HAVE to work on Sundays – I mean – there’s no other choice! Does God’s wisdom agree? I’m preaching to myself here, because I’ve ignored that part of God’s law all my life. Mary and I have started trying to actually take a Sabbath, where we devote the day to God and Family. It’s almost like God actually knew what He was talking about when He told us to take a day of rest each week. It’s hard to do – and I’m not trying to raise myself up as the example – but to say that THERE IS GRACE available when we follow God’s wisdom.
I’d invite each of us to take this to prayer for all of the decisions we make: Look at where the culture has influenced us and ask God if He has another idea: what we should do for a living – where to go to school – whether both parents need to work – how many sports should our kids be in – who should we date – should I move in with my girlfriend – how to spend my free time, whether or not I sing along at Mass… in every one of these situations and more, the culture will give us one answer, but God has grace to pour into our lives if we would seek His wisdom.
Jesus says to renounce our belongings, our reputation, our pride, our security, even our families – EVEN OUR LIVES – . To the world, this will look “unwise”….they will likely make fun of us.
I think that’s Jesus’ point: don’t CARE about what other people think, because Human wisdom is too easily corrupted: Instead, do what God is calling you and me to do. It will look like ‘unwise wisdom’ – but regardless of the cost, just do it.