4 Sep 22, 23 of the Year
As I was pondering the Mass readings for today I was considering how important it is that for our pilgrim journey we need, and use, faithfulness, love, perseverance and discernment for these gifts come from the Holy Spirit.
In recent times there has been much reflection on the evils of slavery and slavery is still very present in the world in our own time, not least in the trafficking of vulnerable individuals, even if many in our modern democracies rightly shun such situations. Whilst we properly, as trying to follow the teaching of Jesus, try to improve situations in our own time we must be aware that we cannot change what has gone before - it is past history and so we do not need to take on a burden of guilt but rather embrace and encourage the gift of freedom in so far as it is possible for us.
The commendation of St. Paul to his friend Philemon to welcome back his slave Onesimus who seems had run away following some accusation. It is apparent that Paul had converted him to Christ and found him a useful companion. Remember too that slavery was extremely common in the Roman Empire and, indeed, throughout the known world in the time of St. Paul. Onesimus, who had for a while, been a companion of St. Paul during the period of his house-arrest either in Caesarea or Rome, is being restored to his rightful owner in a spirit of thanksgiving and generosity and with a view to Freedom when Paul writes: "..but it was only that you could have him back for ever, not as a slave any more, but something much better than a slave, a dear brother, especially dear to me, but how much more to you, as a blood-brother as well as a brother in the Lord. So if all that we have in common means anything to you, welcome him as you would me.”
Onesimus appears also in chapter 4 of St. Paul's letter to the Colossians where he is cited as the companion of Tychicus and an early tradition has it that Onesimus goes from slavery to freedom as a Brother in Christ and then, later, as Bishop of Ephesus in succession to St. Timothy who had also been a companion to St. Paul.
The great importance of today's gospel reading is the fact of the believer's need for faithfulness, love, perseverance and discernment. The location of the Lord's teaching in this passage takes place somewhere on the Lord's journey up to Jerusalem at the end of his ministry in Galilee, after his Transfiguration before Peter and John and James, and, as is usual, he is surrounded by crowds, who wish to see and hear him - such was his reputation. Our Lord cannot have meant, literally, that ..anyone desiring to follow him should hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple." It is generally understood by scholars that this is a dramatic way of saying that anyone desiring to follow Him must put Him above all things - HE MUST COME FIRST above all things.
According to St. Luke Jesus emphasises the need in discipleship not only the self-discipline of putting Him above all things but also allowing the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to enable the discernment which is shown forth in the two parables, unique to Luke, concerning someone intending to build a tower and how he would sit down and work out the cost to ensure there was sufficient to compete work or in the second parable how a king going into battle with 10,000 could overcome an enemy with 20,000 or whether seeing the situation from a distance would not rather send an emissary to sue tor peace! Even so the passage ends with a hard saying: So in the same way, none or you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.
All this, of course, alludes back to that short passage from the Book of Wisdom chapter 9 which we heard as our first reading. We read how Solomon, in beseeching God in prayer, asks 'What man can know the intensions of God ? Who can divine the will of the Lord? Yet after further questionings he discerns the answer when he prays, 'As for your intention, who could have learnt it, had you not granted Wisdom and sent your Holy Spirit from above ? In the mind of the God-seeking Solomon Wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit indeed it can be seen as an interchangeable word for the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Yesterday was, here in England, the Feast of St. Gregory the Great who was responsible for sending St. Augustine of Canterbury and his companions to England to spread the Good News of the saving work of Jesus. High born and holding secular power following his father as governor of Rome he gave that secular power up and took the habit of a monk, probably following an old rule such as that of St. Antony of Egypt - one of the Desert Father, or St. Basil the Great of the Eastern Fathers. Shunning worldly goods for the life of prayer and discernment and having the gift of Wisdom sufficient to see that not only must God and His Christ be put above all things but in earthly terms the poor must be placed above all else.
St. Gregory as Pope, which he became for only a few years at the end of his life, was zealous in his care for the doctrine of the church, for the proclamation of scripture, for meeting the necessities of the poor and spreading the Gospel taking the title, still held by the Pope, : Servant of the servants of God In the gospel passage Jesus is strong to remind us, as we clergy who are members of the Society of the Holy Cross well know: 'Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. It is indeed through the Cross and in sharing of the Cross that we are saved and are able to bring others to the knowledge of the Saving Love of Jesus. No Cross No Salvation. Following Jesus is no easy option but we are indeed called to follow Him. It is rarely an easy task but every grace is given to us that we may follow. WE have only to ponder on the wonderful way in which our Saviour carried out His earthly ministry in order to be inspired and when we feel it is all too much for us- and that we are stumbling remember that many of the great saints stumbled before us. St. Paul himself, so often full of encouragement as in his letter to Philemon, also declares that his strength lies in his weakness and the awareness of his total dependence upon Jesus. The letter that St, Paul sends to Philemon by hand of Onesimus shows Christian warmth, affection and generosity at its best and has that free element of sacrifice in it which the Life, Ministry, Death and Resurrection of Jesus so wonderfully proclaims - for He give all and holds nothing back - not even in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed these words: 'Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done. His alone is the ONE PERFECT SACRIFICE. Amen.