23rd Sunday of the Year C (05 Sep 2010)
Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.
In his prayer for wisdom, which today’s first reading recalls, Solomon noted that human wisdom is timid, which vividly describes our uncertainty when it comes to reason as well as emotion and resolve. God’s wisdom is confident and God’s holy spirit imparts God’s wisdom to mortals. Jesus’ remarks in the gospel, spoken with conviction and colored with Semitic harshness to make his point, revealed Solomon observed correctly. St. Paul’s note to Philemon offers us an example of divine wisdom in human practice.
St. Paul remarked about weakness throughout his letters. He admitted anxiety1 and other interior weakness2 as well as physical weakness due to disease,3 beatings4 and, as we heard, imprisonment.5 Yet the Paul who wrote this note of recommendation—[Philemon,] take Onesimus to your heart as you would me—the Paul who was transformed by the risen Lord testified that the emerging Christian movement struggled to transform personal attitudes and the social and religious symbols, which shaped people.
Onesimus had ended up in prison with Paul, or the runaway slave visited Paul in prison. Either way Onesimus feared his master, Philemon, wanted his “property” back in his service. During Paul’s imprisonment, Onesimus proved useful to Paul, which Paul wrote in his note to Philemon, in the verse the lectionary deprived us from hearing: I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful (both) to you and me.6
...who was once useless to you but is now useful (both) to you and me: Paul made a deft play on words. Chrestos is the root in both useful and useless. Non-Christians confused chrestos with Christos, the Greek title for Jesus as Messiah.7 Early presenters of Christianity played on the misunderstanding in their defense.8 St. Paul wrote his benefactor, Philemon, suggesting in this play on useful and useless that before his conversion Onesimus was useless without Christ, but useful to Paul because Onesimus is a good Christian.9 Plus, Philemon had Paul to thank for bringing him and his household—family, Onesimus and all the slaves—to Christ Jesus. So the benefactor of Paul was in the Apostle’s debt. St. Paul did not lord that truth over Philemon when he noted it for the record, “May I not tell you that you owe me your very self.”10 Noted in no condescending way because, as Paul also wrote Philemon, Jesus had made Philemon and Paul each a partner of the other.
The point is transformation. Transformation worked by risen Jesus in his Spirit. Transformation of a timid Paul, who stood up for a slave who was more than that, a brother in Jesus, brother even to his master. Transformation of the social hierarchy of obligation by realizing real obligation and gratitude for living all owe to risen Jesus, benefactor, Philemon, no less than receiver of kindness, Paul. Finally, transformation of understanding useful from function to identity in risen Jesus. Identity in Jesus helps us appreciate that all humans are images and likenesses of their Creator and Redeemer.
This transformation and its clearer insight to self and others as created in the divine image lay at the heart of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. We preachers at Gesu previewed last week the opportunity soon available to you to make the Spiritual Exercises. To accompany Jesus in them affords a self-discovery of Jesus accompanying one each day in ways nearer than realized before. Noticing Jesus accompanying us frees us from being controlled by our weaknesses and freer to give witness to Jesus more akin to the manner Jesus bears witness for us to God: Jesus presents us to God as Jesus presents his heart to God, the one he called his dear Father.
In your daily 15 minutes with Jesus this week, pause in the bright shadow of the Trinity. Ask St. Paul to present you to Jesus. In your words speak to Jesus: praise him for creating and redeeming you and choosing you to serve…[his] gospel. Ask Jesus for the grace to allow Jesus to transform you more into the person Jesus has created and redeemed: a wise not a timid disciple. Close saying slowly the Lord’s Prayer. Thy will be done, on our lips, is not about any whims of God, but about serving the gospel, which enfleshes God’s desires for the world and how each of us lives in it.
- 2 Corinthians 11.28: And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.
- 2 Corinthians 12.7-10: What began in his flesh affected his inner self.
- Galatians 4.13-14.
- If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. St. Paul enumerates several causes in 2 Corinthians 11.23-27, of which beatings was one.
- Also see Philippians 1.
- Philemon 11.
- Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Life of Claudius, 25:4, is one example.
- Justin Martyr, did so in his First Apology.
- I am indebted to Luke Timothy Johnson, my NT professor for noting this.
- Philemon 19.