Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
September 5, 2010
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 held in Beijing two 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 back in 2004, was given a standing and raucous ovation for tens of minutes. He was a brilliant example of one who refused to go by the hidden rules of doping. Though older than most of his counterparts, he tried one last time to lift that enormous weight over his shoulders. His Atlas-like prowess was long gone, as was 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 Panathenaike stadium were on their feet, cheering him on. The rest of the people in all the fabled motley islands of Greece (the Dodekanese) 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 then 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 two years away, 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 compete at the games do not go there without undergoing grueling training and preparations. Some of them get 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!