My friends, this week, once again, we are called to humility through our readings from Wisdom literature, from Paul and from Jesus. We are also called to seek out wisdom through our religious traditions in order that we might live our lives in a more wholesome and unified way. Each of us has grown up learning to be obedient—to follow rules our parents gave us to keep us safe—“don’t play in traffic; rules the Church gave us to guide our religious upbringing—the Ten Commandments.
When we were children, the rules gave order to our lives and we learned that it was better to obey than not, because there were consequences if we didn’t. As adults, we continue to obey, because there are still consequences if we choose not to, but with more maturity, we begin to question and to reason—“is this the best thing for me to do? Who is helped by my action? Is the world any better because of what I am doing? Is this action just about me or someone else’s selfishness?” Rules of wisdom and further commitment—the Beatitudes and the two Great Commandments guide us in addition.
There are so many choices in our current society—sometimes our decisions are simple to make and it really doesn’t matter—other times much comes into play and we simply have to decide using some of the questions that I posed earlier. Does this action hurt or harm others? Is this action ultimately about love?
In the reading from Philemon today, we get a good example of this. Paul is posing a moral question to Philemon, who is a slave-holder. Onesimus, the slave mentioned but not named in this reading, has run away and has found an advocate for his cause in Paul, who tells Philemon that the decision is his to make, but he appeals to the baptism that joins him and Onesimus. He asks Philemon to see Onesimus, no longer as a slave, but as a brother. And Paul will not demand this of Philemon, but as he says, “I prefer to appeal in the name of love.” When we act out of true love, we can never really go wrong. And this doesn’t mean that we necessarily choose the easy way—true love calls us to make hard decisions at times.
The society of Philemon’s day said that slave-holding was acceptable, but his baptism in Jesus, says the opposite; so Philemon must decide—what is the right thing to do? And the question is ours to ponder too—what effect do my actions have on the greater world? What in effect does Jesus ask of me? Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul—basically to consider Onesimus, the slave, as equal to himself and to Paul because of his baptism into Jesus, the Christ. And we shouldn’t be surprised by this as this is the same Paul who also said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female”—all are one. Each of us friends, face like questions in our day-to-day living. Who is helped, who is harmed by my decision—often it is not a clean, clear decision.
We have all been taught to respect the law and those who enforce it, but we have seen a rash of killings recently perpetrated by police who are supposed to protect, but instead appear to be ready to kill without question if the suspect is black. A recent example is telling. A young black boy was chasing a ball and found himself pursued by policemen who apparently thought he was up to no good. A contingent group of neighbors who saw what was happening surrounded the boy shouting, “Don’t shoot, he’s just a boy!” And the boy, what could have been going through his mind?—probably his young life flashed before him. Thankfully he had some concerned others who stood up for him!
Jesus’ words are equally challenging for us today. This particular gospel is always a hard one for people to get their hearts around. I say, “hearts,” because we can many times rationalize our actions to do something that our hearts won’t allow if we are tuned in. Can Jesus actually be asking me to turn my back on my family as a result of being his follower? That seems very harsh and who can actually, literally, do this?
I believe we have to come at this gospel from a couple different sides, as we do with many of Jesus words, always remembering that his words are multi-layered. First we have to understand how the people of his time would have heard his words. One’s family was everything to them—their lifeline really, in connection with the larger world. It was your family who stood by you, no matter what—these were your people and this meant something. This was especially true for women and children as we have discussed before.
Today our connections to our immediate families may be strong, but they generally aren’t a person’s only lifeline in the greater world. So how are we to look at Jesus’ words? Are we literally being called to turn our backs on our parents and family members in order to follow Jesus? The Scripture seems to be saying, “As a Christian, we give up forever our right to choose who we can love.”
Our decisions to love the one that nobody loves may come between us and our family, but Jesus’ message to us is clear—as much as we may love and care for our families, we must as Jesus’ followers ultimately do the loving thing, at times speak truth to the lie that some are not acceptable, are not good enough, even if that runs counter to our familial relationships.
The writer of the Wisdom selection for today’s liturgy says it a bit differently, but seems to point up the fact that we cannot know the mind of God. We do know though from everything that Jesus says elsewhere about loving our neighbor as ourselves, that he doesn’t want us to turn our backs on our loved ones. I believe what Jesus is trying to tell us as we care for family, friends and others is that we remember that our actions must resemble his in order to truly be his followers.
The CBS nightly news carried a very poignant story in this regard this past week. A group of college football players visited Montford Middle School in Tallahassee, FL to share some time and pizza with the students there. Wide receiver, Travis Rudolph sat down next to a student who was sitting alone. Turned out that 6th grader, Bo Paske often sits alone as he lives with autism and most of his classmates choose not to sit with him. Travis Rudolph found him to be, in his words, “a cool person” and said he would “sit with him any time.” Bo’s mom was overjoyed because it breaks her heart to see her son being treated this way by his classmates and all because they haven’t gotten to know the boy she knows and loves. Rudolph had no idea that his seemingly small action would mean so much. Often this is true for us as well—it’s not always the big things, but the ordinary, day-to-day kindnesses and gestures that mean so much.
We don’t always follow the wisdom writer in all of our decisions—sometimes we choose out of selfishness and greed—“this will make me look good in others’ eyes,” instead of just doing it because it is the right thing to do. Sometimes we act out of our own personal need to be loved. Sometimes we act out of ignorance—helping when it might be better to hold back, and we enable bad behavior by giving someone something they needed to earn on their own. Sometimes we act out of arrogance thinking we know what is best for someone, when ultimately, only God knows. We don’t as humans always choose wisely; that is why it is so important to keep our eyes on Jesus.
These are hard sayings, no getting around it! Wisdom today says well, I believe, what we feel from time to time: “For a perishable body presses down on my soul, and a clay house weighs down the restless mind.” All of our human weaknesses as described above, our selfishness, ignorance and arrogance get in the way of our ability to truly do the loving thing at times. Those of you in our community who have lost loved ones know too of how this “clay house” of our bodies can weigh one down. Those who struggle in this world with mental illness, with poverty, with people shunning them for one reason or another know the press of the perishable body and the “clay house” that can weigh us down.”
So, my friends, I would invite each of us to walk in humility with our God in order that we would understand that which is needed to live our lives well, always keeping our eyes on Jesus who shows us the way. He asks nothing of us that he didn’t ask of himself. So, let us strive to be people of truth, mercy, justice, love and care in regard to ourselves, others and our world. We must ultimately never let anything or anyone get in the way of fully following Jesus. I believe this is what he truly meant when he said, “if you can’t turn your back on mother, brothers, sisters; you can’t be my followers. God bless us all in this endeavor as we cry out with the psalmist today: Make us realize the shortness of life—in every age O God, you have been our refuge. Amen? Amen!