“How I hate being a slave!” That’s what Onesimus said to his fellow slaves one night. “How I hate being a slave.” Later that night he ran away. He ran over the hills until he came to Ephesus. He enjoyed his first day of freedom. He roamed around the city without a care in the world. But late in the day he became very hungry. He tried to steal some carrots from a vendor in the market place; but he was caught and thrown into prison. Much to his surprise, Saint Paul was being held in that same prison.
Paul was a storyteller and Onesimus was fascinated by the stories that he told, especially stories about Jesus of Nazareth and the story of his own conversion on the road to Damascus. After three days of listening to Saint Paul, Onesimus said, “I want to become a part of your Christian community.” Paul gave him instructions for several months and then baptized him.
Several weeks later, Onesimus was set free because his sentence had been served. He said to Paul, “I think I will stay in Ephesus and find a job.” Paul said, “I’m sorry but you can’t do that. You must return to your master.” “But he will be cruel to me.” Onesimus said. “I don’t think so.” Paul said. “I will write a letter to him and if you deliver the letter I think he will treat you well.”
And so it was that Paul wrote his famous letter to Philemon:
Dear Philemon, I know what the law says. Yes, you have rights as a slave owner. You have the right to torture a slave that runs away. And I know that you will be tempted to do that in order to scare any other slave who might be thinking about running away. But please remember that you are a Christian and you are called to follow a higher law. When you were baptized you became a disciple of Jesus and Jesus calls you to follow the law of love. You are called to treat all people with kindness and respect - including slaves.
So, it comes down to this: Are you going to follow the higher law, the law of love? Or will you take the easy way out and appeal to the law of the land while torturing your slave? If you are a true disciple you will take on the new attitudes and the new behaviors which are part and parcel of the New Covenant. I trust that you will do the right thing. Sincerely, your friend Paul
The Bible never tells us whether Philemon followed Paul’s advice; but we think that he did because the church saved Saint Paul’s letter and later incorporated it into the New Testament. This letter has great value for us today because it points to the difficult decisions that Christians have to make. Some Christians have to carry the cross of Christ by dying for their faith. But the majority of Christians are not martyrs. The majority carry the cross of Christ by struggling with difficult decisions on a daily basis.
For example, it’s difficult to forgive those who hurt us. It seems more logical to retaliate and shame them, so they won’t do it again. It’s hard to follow the higher law in that case. It’s difficult to include people who are rude and crude in our circle of friendship. It’s tempting to ostracize them and let them suffer the consequences of their anti-social behavior. It’s hard to follow the law of love in that situation.
It’s difficult to be patient with people who make the same mistake over and over again. We would like to take over and make decisions for them. It’s hard to respect their freedom and the dignity they have as People of God. Philemon found it very difficult to be a disciple of Jesus in his day - and the same is true for us today.
In today’s gospel Jesus is teaching his followers about discipleship. He says that discipleship calls for discipline. Discipline is the root word for discipleship. Discipleship means carrying the cross. It means dedicating your life to living out the Gospel. It means struggling with difficult decisions as we strive to follow the higher law, the Law of Love.
When we look at the total Gospel, and not just today’s short passage, we see that Jesus has created a three-part job description for discipleship. Jesus repeatedly calls for prayer, fasting and works of mercy. Time and time again, he repeats that three-part formula: prayer, fasting and works of mercy. That’s something for us to think about this Labor Day weekend. The Christian job description calls for prayer, fasting and works of mercy.
Prayer might be the most difficult task for us because it takes time, and we seldom see immediate results. We are called to personal prayer and family prayer on a daily basis, and we are called to pray with the church every Sunday. Prayer does not give us instant gratification; but it does give us a spiritual reservoir - a reservoir of grace and Christian values. We need this reservoir during crunch time - during those moments when we have to make difficult decisions.
Fasting is something that we do during Lent; but that is only the beginning. We are called to fast every day. We are called to fast from gossip and name calling and trying to control others. We are called to fast from all those things that prevent us from having an unconditional love for our neighbor.
The Christian job description also includes works of mercy. Jesus calls us to charity which means sharing what we have with those who have a greater need. Jesus also calls us to the ministry of justice. Justice means that we change situations and systems which are hurting individuals and groups of people.
I will close by calling to mind the central message of today’s Gospel. Jesus calls us to carry the cross and embrace the lifestyle called discipleship. And discipleship gives us our Christian job description: Prayer, fasting and works of mercy.
During this Labor Day Weekend let us pray for the grace we need to fulfill the requirements of our Christian job description:
Prayer, fasting and works of mercy.