Hey, don’t get mad at me. Jesus is the one who said it in the gospel reading for this week: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” And a little farther on: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
I’m guessing that doesn’t sit well with you. Me neither.
This is why Jesus is so much harder to follow than we want to admit. It’s exactly why we aren’t very good at it. It’s why we don’t talk about this side of faith. It’s just plain too difficult.
One of the other readings for the week illustrates this perfectly. Paul is writing to his friend and coworker Philemon, with a request. This tiny New Testament book has one purpose: to ask Philemon to release a slave, Onesimus, and to receive him as a brother.
I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Let’s try to understand the full impact of this. Paul is asking no small favor; it’s about as huge as they come. He appeals to love and faith. Onesimus has become like a son to Paul, and Philemon’s ownership of this human being is harming all three of them.
If he agrees to this wild plea, Philemon will lose so much. Economically, he will no longer have Onesimus’ labor without having to pay wages. In terms of social standing, what will people say if he takes a slave and makes him like “a beloved brother”? It’s hard to overestimate the social damage it would do to him, even (especially?) in the community of faith, perhaps in his own family. People with power, money, and social standing don’t take it well when things get stirred up. It’s threatening.
We never learn what Philemon decided. Was the letter preserved because he went along with Paul’s request? Was it preserved because he didn’t? Was it preserved to show us that we all make choices that are difficult, and that those choices affect so many other people?
What threatens you and your way of life? Are you willing and ready to part with things that are important, even things that seem essential, in order to follow Jesus? In order to lower yourself and raise up somebody else? This is the social justice that is the heart of Luke’s gospel.
Give up everything?
I wonder what we would gain in return?
© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier