23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
September 9, 2007

Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b / Phlm 9-10, 12-17 / Lk 14:25-33

Our readings today smack of homeliness, tenderness, and at the same time, straightforwardness. The first reading refers to the limitations of human wisdom. “For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans.” That’s straightforward. At the same time, the same reading ascribes to God what, despite human limitations, human beings can attain: “Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?” Now that’s a homely understanding of what God himself does for us and to us. His tender love comes out in the form of counsel that is effective: “And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.”

The second reading is not only homely, but also tender. Intervening to settle some kind of a “domestic dispute” between a master and a slave, Paul’s closeness to both master and servant becomes an occasion for both to redefine their relationship according to the demands of discipleship. For the disciples of Christ, master-slave relationships ought to become tender and fraternal relationships: “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.” Calling on Philemon and his natural tender-heartedness, Paul begs him on behalf of Onesimus to welcome him back no longer as a slave but a brother in the Lord.

Paul considers Philemon and Onesimus as disciples of the same Lord. To both, he was straightforward. He tells Onesimus to go back to his erstwhile Master Philemon. He also tells Philemon to welcome back the wayward runaway slave Onesimus, no longer as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord.

Discipleship is a life filled with tenderness, a life characterized by a deep and tender devotion to the one Master, Lord, and Savior. But, as the readings make clear today, discipleship does have its straightforward demands. Paul makes one such straightforward demand to Philemon today: “Welcome back Onesimus, for my sake and for the Lord.”

I am three months away from my 25th anniversary of ordination. I remember vividly the days, months, and years before that much awaited day back in 1982. I look back, too, with both joy and trembling at the years that followed. The years all went by so fast. They could all be compared to what I have learned to love doing when I still had the time and the stamina to do it – climbing up mountains! Going up heights entails blood, sweat, and tears. But being up there, along with going down the mountain, is always filled with exhilaration and excitement, warmth and wonder, grace and glory that always canceled out all the “sweat and care and cumber; sorrows passing number” that went into the preparation and the climbing itself.

Discipleship, which I compare to climbing mountains, is a story filled as much with difficult decisions, as equally difficult demands that are straightforward. It takes wisdom from above to understand it. It takes the same gift of wisdom for disciples like us to be able to live it and fulfill it. But as in scaling heights, one has to love it to enjoy it, the same is true for discipleship. It has to be based on a tender, and deep personal relationship, like the close relationship between Paul and Philemon, that enabled both to navigate through the difficult demands of that discipleship.

It sure must not have been easy for Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave. It sure was not easy, too, for Onesimus to go back to a situation that he felt he had to run away from, if only for a while.

But there is more to these straightforward demands of discipleship …

First, one has to make decisions. One has to make choices. And such choices have to be clear and committed. One cannot straddle the road, nor zigzag one’s way through difficulties. And one’s choice must be clearer than Sprite: “if anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Without in any way taking the passage literally, as literally “hating” family, I would like to think that discipleship has to do with a great deal of healthy self-differentiation. Let me illustrate. Making choices is not enough. Making decisions for the Lord is not enough. That choice and decision must be clear and unalloyed, direct and straightforward. It cannot be a wishy-washy, touchy-feely kind of tenuous attachment to a vague idea and equally vague ideal. There has to be warmth and tenderness that are both based on a personal relationship, like the closeness and intimacy between Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, and, of course, Christ their Master and Lord.

More than 15 years in formation work has convinced me of a few things. In retrospect, the problematic seminarians who just did not manage to navigate the polar tensions that abounded in the lengthy process of formation were either too enmeshed, or to disengaged with their families of origin. Those who were too emotionally fused with their families (with either father or mother figures) and those, on the other hand, who were too emotionally detached and disengaged from them, are eventually those who find difficulties adjusting. They were not sufficiently self-differentiated. Without healthy self-differentiation, they end up either being utterly dependent on them, or being too reactive to them. They were either too expecting and too demanding of their superiors, or too angry with them, or too reactive to them, projecting on them the parent-figure against whom and with whom they still have to disengage, or healthily self-differentiate. Discipleship that is not based on a healthy sense of tenderness and deep personal relationship is discipleship that is not open and ready for the demands that it entails. One is too bogged down by the need to either react to or being dependent on some key figures in the past, that one cannot decide fully to follow. One loses so much energy dealing with past issues, as to have no energy left for discipleship that makes straightforward demands.

25 years is a long time to get some further realizations along the way. Looking back, they have been years of unmatched joy and unparalleled sense of personal fulfillment for me. But there, too, have been times marked by disillusionment and disappointment. Like the desert experience of the Jews fresh out of the relative coziness of Egyptian bondage, one pined for home and longed for tenderness and intimacy. And, depending on what one does with the call to self-differentiation, depending on what sort of choice or decision one makes, one ends up discovering either desolation or devotion.

Discipleship is a call for us all to make choices and decisions. Commitment to Jesus, acceptance of the cross, and relinquishment of material possessions as signs of self-differentiation, could only lead to devotion. The opposite could only lead to desolation.

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
September 3, 2007

[Alternative Reflection]

There is something heartwarming in today’s readings, particularly in Paul’s letter to Philemon (2nd reading). Paul, by then an old man in prison, waxes paternal and solicitous for the welfare of both Philemon and the runaway slave Onesimus. As the law would prescribe, Paul sends him right back to Philemon, but not before liberating both the master and the slave. Philemon may well have been a slave to the prevailing culture of that time that considered slavery normal. Onesimus, may well have been, not only a physical slave, but also – and more importantly – a slave to his own misconceptions about himself and his relationship with the rest of the world, including his master, Philemon.

Paul, an old man shackled in prison, bound by the dictates of an earthly law that he has spent so much time and effort enlightening people about, gives Philemon, Onesimus, and the whole believing world for posterity, a great lesson on personal deliverance, freedom, and total human liberation.

The Olympic games of three years ago were a minefield, not only of gold medals, but also of golden opportunities to illustrate inner personal freedom and the liberating force of love for others. I have no idea whether those athletes who became clear icons of interior freedom have ever heard of the Christian gospel, but what some of them did in the playing fields are definitely supportive of the Christian good news that has to do essentially with liberation.

In a hotly contested arena that makes vying for the coveted gold, silver, or bronze medals a matter of both personal and national pride, it is so easy for any athlete to go for drugs as much as he/she goes for gold. Where everyone cheers and eggs them on to be “swifter, higher, stronger,” athletes can really be tempted to fall slaves to dopes and drugs, slaves to the idea of victory at all costs, enslaved by lies, even as they bask under the glow of fame and – for some – fortune. But in this same arena awash in potential cheating of all kinds, there appear, time and time again, shining examples of values that proclaim the dazzling beauty of liberating truth, and the interior glow of honesty, good, clean, hard work, and the rare flash of magnanimity that comes from the most unexpected players.

The Greek weightlifter named Dimas, in his fourth time as Olympic contender, given a standing and raucous ovation for tens of minutes, a brilliant example of one who refuses to go by the hidden rules of doping, older than most of his counterparts, tries one last time to lift that enormous weight over his shoulders. His Atlas-like prowess is long gone, as is obvious to everyone in the stands. His body all but crumpled under the weight, but Dimas came out a golden medalist in the hearts of everyone, not only in Greece, but all over the world. His wife and three children were there, crying for joy and sadness. The crowds at the Panathenaiko stadium were on their feet, cheering him on. The rest of the people in all the fabled motley islands of Greece must have been stomping their feet in honor of one who could no longer go “swifter, higher, and stronger,” but who towered over everybody else due to his unflinching code of personal integrity, pristine honesty, and devotion to his family and adopted homeland. (He was a migrant from Albania, of Greek grandparents).

Who says interior freedom is no longer in vogue? Who says that the liberating power of moral truth is no longer relevant?

Can anyone say that freedom is not a value to those two women from Afghanistan, whose quest for gold ended after just 45 seconds of competition, reviled and hated like anything, for having gone to Greece to follow their heart, and share in the “glorious liberty of the children of God,” despite a culture that is willing to kill them for doing the unthinkable?
Can anyone fault the bemedalled and universally adored lanky 19-year old kid from Baltimore, (Michael Phelps, dubbed the Baltimore Bullet) who gave up the chance to increase even more his stature, by giving his fellow team-mate the chance to compete in the 200 meter relay in swimming? Can anyone fail to see the force of interior freedom shining in the hearts of contenders who simply have no chance, but who plodded on all the same, in quest, not so much for the gold, as for the golden opportunity to do one’s best in the midst of the world’s finest?

We live in a world dotted with Olympic-sized challenges all over. They may not have to do with material gold and glittering medallions. But these moral challenges have to do with what matters, what counts, and what is most important in the long run. They have to do with treasures which no moth or rust can destroy. And like the coveted Olympic gold, or the gospel’s “pearl of great price,” they call on us to give our best, to do our utmost, and to plan ahead.

On other occasions, I have repeatedly said that we live in the context of a morally complex world, at best. At worst, we find ourselves in a morally messy world. In a world that is ruled by conflicting and contrasting ideologies, extremes of thought that are, at bottom, based on the same materialistic philosophical grounds, it is so easy to join the morally relativistic bandwagon and live just like everybody does, just like all of Hollywood does, just like what mass media show us – a case of art imitating life, or life imitating art. In a country that considers graft and corruption the “normal thing to do,” it is so easy to “join them, if you cannot beat them.” And in this surging sea of relativism, all is alright, everything is OK, and sin is nothing more than a label to be done away with, an unhealthy guilt that must be banished from our neurotic minds.

Today, the liturgy teaches us that, whilst the Olympic games are still a year away from now, the moral challenges of daily life go on. The call to genuine interior liberation goes on. And examples both from Scriptures and daily life in our times are never wanting. These are examples of people, who, while physically challenged like Paul in prison, nevertheless come out interiorly free. These are examples of people who have chosen heavenly “wisdom” over earthly and material cunningness and skills. They have chosen mystery over mastery, ever ready and willing to be guided by the ineffable counsel from above: “Who can know God’s counsel or who can conceive what the Lord intends? … Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?”

Those great men and women who competed at the summer games did not go there without undergoing grueling training and preparations. Some of them got what they prepared for – medals of metal and adulation from adoring crowds.

In the greater and bigger arena that is the world and life in its fullness, victory lies, not so much on those who excel in physical powers, but on those who have understood that what counts in the long run, is the freedom that comes from above, the freedom that is both a test and a trust – a gift and a responsibility. This is the gift of Christian, interior freedom that comes with the very nature of our being human, created as we are unto God’s image and likeness.

Born to be free, humans like us, are called to ever deeper, ever broader, and ever more liberating freedom. Onward, then, Christian soldiers to the fight of our lifetimes! Swifter, higher, stronger!

August 24, 2007 - Dundalk, MD