There is a sombre tone in today’s readings, reflecting on the shortness of life and the difficulty of planning in uncertain times. The Gospel has a striking challenge to what priorities we have in our lives, and how we live by them.
Wisdom is probably the last book accepted into our Catholic Bible, found the Greek text but not part of the Hebrew Bible. The message today has themes typical of ‘Wisdom’ books of which there are a number in the Old Testament. Some of these share the almost pessimistic assessment of human limitations. Wisdom as God’s gift is frequently mentioned in Proverbs texts, and it is often personified as a woman. We hear a contrast between the two aspects with the conclusion that there is no need to be discouraged by the oppressing difficulties of this world if we rely on the guidance coming from Wisdom – that is, from God. Christian theologians have found in the personification of ‘Wisdom’ a fore-shadowing of both Jesus’ teaching and the action of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Psalm 89/90:3-6, 12-14, 17
The first verses of the Response echo the dismal picture of human frailty and limitations. Then comes a prayer for wisdom and for pity. The last verse asks God for joy and success in our given tasks trusting in his desire to help.
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
This is a personal Letter and some wonder why it was included as Scripture. One reason may be that it shows the warm, loving aspect of Paul’s personality and his skill in rhetoric. It does, however, have ideas we can benefit from. The background: Paul, in his old age, is imprisoned – he does not tell us where. It may be Rome, a time we know from Acts, but there are other possibilities. Philemon was a convert of Paul’s. He had a slave named Onesimus who ran away, possibly taking some of his master’s property, and somehow made his way to Paul. Paul then made a convert of him as well, which is why he calls Onesimus his ‘child’. The slave’s name means ‘useful’ and Paul puns on this meaning in the letter. Onesimus has become ‘useful’ in helping Paul in prison, and he would like to keep his services. But he recognizes the position of the slave-owner in Hellenistic society with its legality of holding humans as property – indeed, the owner was allowed to punish a slave severely for running away. Paul pleads for mercy for Onesimus and says any loss Philemon has incurred can be laid to Paul. This could be an offer for financial compensation or a subtle reminder of what Philemon owes to Paul as the one who brought him to Christ.
Paul further tells Philemon that now that the slave has become a brother in Christ, there is a new relationship established. Paul would like Philemon to release this new brother from involuntary servitude and let him return to Paul as a free person. While saying he does not want to ‘force’ Philemon to act, he is still challenging him to live up to the demands of his new faith and the gratitude he owes to Paul.
Is Paul suggesting that Christians should not be keeping slaves –especially not ‘Christian brothers’? Opinions are divided. In her book on Philemon, Mary Ann Getty, RSM, makes a strong case for this. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, SJ, thinks that Paul has laid down a principle that points in this direction, without Paul expecting to change the existing social structures. In either view, we are called to ask: what is our obligation as Christians to those over whom we have any form of power or control? Do we treat them as our ‘brothers and sister’, as part of a true family relationship in Christ?
The first words of the Gospel sound harsh, almost scandalous, especially coming right after Paul’s loving concerns. Is Jesus – who so often tells us to ‘love one another’ – actually commanding us to ‘hate’? And further to hate those we have the most human affection for? No, for we are dealing with a Semitic language convention: they do not have the same kind of comparatives we use. G. B. Caird in his commentary, says:
‘To hate father and mother did not mean on the lips of Jesus what it conveys to the Western reader…The Semitic mind is comfortable only with extremes –light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate… The Semitic way of saying “I prefer this to that” is “I like this and hate that”’.
Jesus stresses that discipleship is not a casual relationship: it makes demands in our lives and they may be severe in a crisis. A culture, as that of the time of Jesus, based on tribal relationships may incline people to depend on the opinions and follow the practices of the extended family rather than looking to God first. Luke has begun with a reminder of the journey, with the hint that the crowds following him – perhaps light-hearted pilgrims on the way to Passover in Jerusalem – are not really recognizing what it means to follow Jesus who is on his way to the cross.
It may also help to realize that ‘love’ here is not talking of feelings, affections, the ‘warm glow’ we may get when close to someone. Rather, it is the love that has made a decision about what matters most to one’s life. Compare artists who ‘love’ music or painting, and plan their lives to focus on their art. Or parents who re-order their comfortable single life styles to adapt to the needs of their children, even when the child is disabled or ill and the demands are heavy. Similarly, those who adopt gospel values usually have to make changes in how they spend their time and resources.
The parables extend the theme with recognizable worldly examples. When someone makes an important and expensive decision like building a house, they are expected to note the cost, the time involved, and prepare appropriately. Similarly, a ruler plotting a war should figure what is needed for success and if he doesn’t have the resources, seek a diplomatic solution. (Probability of a successful outcome is one of the requirements of a ‘just war’ in moral theology. Looking at disasters in the modern world, some politicians of our time seem not to have learned this lesson.)
Jesus then makes an application that is often stressed in Luke: possessions should not get in our way in following Jesus and serving our brothers and sisters. We are called to share rather than cling to wealth.
In his illuminating book, Being Disciples, Rowan Williams comments on these words of Luke. Discipleship he defines as ‘being with Jesus and that relationship means that who you are is defined by him.’ It follows that, ‘If other relationships seek to define you in a way that distorts [this] you lose something vital for our own well-being and that of all around you. You lose the possibility of a love more than you could have planned or realised for yourself. Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.’