Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Onesimus was a slave, sent by Philemon to take care of Saint Paul in prison. Now the idea of sending a servant to someone in prison makes little sense in our own day, but in Paul's prison, the residents were expected to provide for their own needs, and the elderly Paul was not quite up to the task. Remember, by this point in this life he had been imprisoned several times, arrested on four occasions, and once stoned and left for dead.
So Philemon sends his slave Onesimus to the old Paul in order to help him to get by. But, it appears from Saint Paul's words, that Onesimus did not remain a slave for long. Indeed, he becomes a dear friend to the old Apostle, one whom he refers to as "of my own heart."
And then, in a curious turn of phrase, Saint Paul suggests that Onesimus is something even more than a friend...he is, in Pauls own words, a man and a brother.
From slave to beloved to brother. What does this all mean?
From Slaves to Friends
In the beginning, we are all duloi,or slaves. Slaves to our passions, slaves to our needs, slave to selfishness and sin. And then, starting with those fights with our younger sisters and older brothers and by the competitions of the schoolyard, we turn from slaves to free men and women, liberated from our narcissism, we become beloved friends.
Do you remember your first friends? I do. We'd ride bikes together and take the bus to Worcester on Saturdays to buy Superman comic books at the old Bus station (see how old I am?) and visit the old Science Museum behind the chancery, the library and the Cathedral. It's almost fifty years ago, but I can still remember the joy and the trials of first being called a friend.
And since then, each friendship has been more of the same. Best friends, spouses, colleagues and acquaintances. Each beloved not for what they can do for you, but for who they are. In the image of Christ Jesus, who commands us to love one another as he has loved us, we learn the meaning of passion and sacrifice, of self-emptying and letting go, of dying and rising in loving those whom we call beloved in our lives.
Such love is never easy, but it is the treasure beyond all price, for in true love we see a true reflection of the face of Christ upon the cross. Such love, Saint Paul tells us, is patient, kind, does not put on airs...and most of all, is merciful.
Perhaps mercy is the acid test of love, for it is given at the moment when we have precisely nothing to gain and all to give. Father forgive them, Christ prays from the altar of the cross, for they know not what they do.
I remember one day several years ago flying out of Washington DC with an old friend of mine. It was a cross country flight and one for which we had planned for many months. Upon leaving the house he went to drive to BWI, the airport about a half hour up the Baltimore Washington Parkway. What are you doing, I practically shrieked...we're flying out of DCA, a half hour in the other direction. I don't think so, James, he calmly came back. Im sure the itinerary said BWI. Well you're just not as used to traveling as I am, Im sure it was DCA. And when he suggested we get out and look at the packed itinerary, I stubbornly insisted: Trust me, it's DCA.
Well, as we left DCA a half hour later, having discovered he was right all along, with the fear that we would now miss our flight due to my insufferable self-assuredness, I was very quiet, until I sheepishly looked up at him, expecting, at the very least, to be berated for my mistake.
But to my surprise, he smiled, laughed softly, and mercifully reminded me, we can
always get get the next flight. I make mistakes like that all the time.
Love is patient. Love is kind. And most of all, it is merciful.
But the story of Onesimus brings us one step further in relationship. Further than a best friend, further than a spouse. For Onesimus goes from slave to beloved to brother.
Brothers or adelphoi in Greek, is one of Saint Pauls favorite words, but he uses it advisedly. Adelphoi is a non-gendered word in Greek...it means brothers and sisters alike...like the Italian fratelli or the Spanish hermanos.
We become brothers and sisters by virtue of our relationship to Jesus, who no longer calls us slaves, but friends, brothers and sisters. And because we have become his adelphoi, we have become adopted sons of his Father in heaven. And that's the whole point! We are Gods children, the siblings of the Son of God and the children of God.
That changes everything. Because if God is our Father, we can pray to him, trust in his mercy and are heirs to his heavenly kingdom.
It changes everything, because if God is our Father and Jesus is our brother, we can learn from the first born Son how to live and to love, trust that when we get lost, he will go out to look for us and will carry us home and rest assured that our judge on the last day is also our intercessor, the one who desires not the death of his brother, but that he repent and live!
This is why Saint Paul so often begins his letters to the various churches he has founded with the vocative Adelphoi: Brothers and sisters, Church, sons and daughter of the one Father. For this is our essential identity, and the very reason for our being. Why did God make me? To be a brother to you in Christ: a part if this holy people, this royal priesthood, no longer a stranger in a strange land, but your brother, joined to you in an intimate union of sacrificial life and love.
For, we do not get to heaven alone, Saint Paul and Onesimus teach us, but as God's holy people, joined in a bond of sacrificial love as his Church...no longer a slaves...but more than a slave, as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Monsignor James P. Moroney