BY: Fr. Jude Nnadi



Readings: Wisdom 9: 13-18; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33

“I, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus, urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my improvement; I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my improvement for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary. Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. So, if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.” (Philemon 9-10,12-17).
This Sunday we will focus our reflection precisely on the riches of those few lines Paul addresses to a friend named Philemon, and Apphia, who was probably his wife, and to another friend, Archippus, also cited in the letter to the Colossians (4,17) and defined as “a fellow soldier” in a symbolic sense, that is, a companion in the battle/struggle for the Kingdom of God. This note, very personal and written entirely by the apostle, concerns a concrete case, a model for every Christian story. It is not for nothing that the letter, despite being “private”, involves “the whole community that gathers in the house of Philemon” to listen to the Word and celebrate the Eucharist (typical of a “domestic church” of the first Christian century). In the body of Christ which is the Church even personal affairs are never merely “private”. Paul, who is a prisoner (probably in Ephesus), draws these lines, coloring them with passion because the problem he raises is of great importance for the new Christian morality.

The occasion of the writing is known. A slave of Philemon, Onesimus, stole from his master and fled seeking a place of refuge. If the police had caught him, he would have been returned to his master who could have punished him severely. This unhappy slave may have heard Paul speak in the house of his Master Philemon, and now feeling hunted, he had gone to the Apostle in search of refuge. Paul had welcomed him with love and had converted him to Christianity. But now tries to reopen for him a way back to Philemon’s house and he does this with boldness revealing the extreme originality of the Christian social choices with respect to the surrounding pagan world.

Until now, Paul had addressed the issue of slavery only indirectly, celebrating the equality of all people before God, because we are all sinners in need of salvation (Cor 7:20-24; Eph 6: 5-9; Col 3: 22-4, 1), a revolutionary aspect of Christianity towards human dignity: “in Christ there is no longer slave or free” (Gal 3: 28), “love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” (Rm 12:10). This commitment is implemented in the letter to Philemon. A scholar of Paul writes: “Fraternal unity in Christ takes possession of the master-slave relationship and breaks it, transferring it to a very different level. Onesimus will not be considered only an equal or another member of the Church, he will also be a member of Philemon’s family, he will be a full brother.” In fact, the note has its apex in that intense expression: “no longer as a slave, but much more than a slave, like a brother, a beloved brother”.

Our Christian commitment in defense of the human dignity must surpass that of any other ideology. Every person is a child of God, an image of God, brother/sister of Christ, saved and destined for full communion with God. Paul does not suggest a paternalistic solution but a radical one: the transformation of the slave and the oppressed into a brother. We, must, therefore, be at the forefront in defending life; the freedom, rights and dignity of every human being, born and the unborn.
Everything Paul asks of Philemon he asks without arrogance or demands it as if he had the right; he only remembers his rights to induce Philemon to renounce him. Just as Christ did for us in respect of God the Father in favor of us; so, Paul does in respect of Philemon in favor of Onesimus. Christ renounced his rights and with love and humility convinced the Father to lay down his anger and welcome us in love. Christ represents us all with the Father and carries us very much at heart. We are all the Onesimuses of him.

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