In the 2nd reading of this 23rd Sunday, year C (Philemon 9-10, 12-17), we read a story that is of great significance in our lives as Christians. The story line is that Philemon, a slave owner, had become converted to Christianity by Paul. Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had run away from his master and encountered Paul in Rome, while Paul was in prison, and became converted to Christianity. Now, Paul wants to return Onesimus back to Philemon, but he wants Philemon, to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a dear brother in Christ.
What a challenge this might have been for Philemon. No doubt, he must have struggled with this invitation to Christian charity. Onesimus, very possibly, had stolen from his master, was said to be a useless slave, and had run away, depriving Philemon of the labor that he legally had a right to. And now Paul is challenging him to receive God’s grace by welcoming Onesimus back, no longer as a piece of property, no longer as someone who had stolen from him, but as a beloved spiritual sibling. Not easy, is it? It is amazing how God can stretch us beyond our comfort zone just to make us see beyond our prejudices and bitterness. Think about Joseph and how he was able to forgive and reconcile with his brothers who had done so much evil against him? He recognized that the evil done against him was used by God to accomplish so much good. My friends, our ability to forgive others comes from knowing that the great power of God can accomplish good through our suffering and hurt.
Important to note here is that Paul, in this letter, is not just challenging Philemon alone. He is challenging all of us. Just as Philemon’s conversion to Christianity called for a revolution in his thinking, decision-making, and relationships, so does our accepting Christ as our Lord and Savior demand a radical change in our lives, in our thinking, our decision-making, and in our relationships with others; with those we dislike so much and even hate, with those we bear prejudice over, with those who differ in their political views from us, with those we can barely stand their sight or even the sound of their voice. Accepting Jesus Christ should provoke in us the very possibility of ending bitterness and hatred, reviling, malice, discrimination, dehumanization, classism, and racism. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. I know that sounds like a cliché but it is truly a radical concept at the very heart of being a Christian. If we cannot accept this, then Christianity is not for us.
In the Gospel reading, Christ was very clear that being a faithful disciple will cost us and will cost us big time. That is why He asked that we weigh the cost of discipleship before we accept Him as our Lord and Savior. The good news is that the grace of God is ever present to make all things possible, only if we believe. Accepting the challenge of our Christian faith, in this story, begins with a deep conviction that we can find our way out of bitterness and hatred. Then, we prayerfully seek the grace of God and, with humility, work for it in our own lives. Nothing is impossible for God to do, in us, only if we can believe and submit to his power and grace.