4 September 2016
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 18C (RCL)
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
We don’t like this passage from Luke: hate father and mother? What can Jesus possibly mean? We associate (in this time and place, at least) Christianity with the nuclear family. The family that prays together stays together. This grates on our sensibilities. But I think Christianity in its original form would grate on more than just our sensibilities about nuclear family. Right now, Colin Kaepernick is in the news for refusing to stand during the National Anthem. Christians of the third century would be stunned that Christians now would consent to stand for the hymn of empire. Many of them would have gone to their deaths rather than sing the praises of the empire. So, what does Jesus mean by hating father and mother, and even one’s own soul?
I think looking at Paul’s letter to Philemon is a good place to start. Onesimus (a name which means ‘useful’ indicating Onesimus’ high value to Philemon, his owner), a slave, has run away from his master and come to Paul in prison. Paul is writing a letter to Philemon, to be carried to him by Onesimus, asking Philemon to take Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother.
Paul’s rhetorical finesse is unequaled. To begin with, he writes the letter in such a way that Philemon will have to read it to the entire congregation in his household, thereby putting his honor at stake. Paul then puts himself in a similar position to Onesimus in regard to Philemon; Paul is a prisoner of Jesus Christ. Paul is literally a prisoner, but stating that he is a prisoner of Jesus Christ (where in other letters he calls himself a slave of Jesus Christ) indicates that if Philemon should decide to put Onesimus in prison, Paul and Onesimus will share a status; a status that the rest of the world would see as shameful, but Christians would see has honorable. Now Philemon’s own honor is very clearly at stake.
Paul and Onesimus share a partnership (koinonia); and Paul desires that Philemon share a partnership in the faith with him. In prison, Paul has become a father to Onesimus; Onesimus has undergone a conversion, much the same way Philemon had earlier. There’s a wonderful pun here in the letter. Onesimus means useful; and Paul says that while he was formerly useless to Philemon, he has now become very useful to both Paul and Philemon. The word used for useful here is chrestos, which his a homonym to Christos. He was formerly not Christ to you but now is very Christ (euchrestos), which also rhymes with eucharistos.
Philemon is in a jam. If he does not punish Onesimus, he will lose face with other men of his own status in his city. But if he does punish Onesimus, he will lose status with Paul. Paul is gambling that Philemon values Paul more than his own social standing. By having this whole transaction take place in the face of the entire congregation, Paul has forced Philemon to choose between his standing as a citizen and his standing as a Christian. The choice is stark.
Jesus presents a similar choice. In Luke’s Gospel, this saying comes immediately after the parable of the great banquet. A man gave a great dinner, but all of the important guests begged off, so the man told his servants to bring in all the riff-raff they could find. Many would hear this story and want to be part of that feast, but Jesus warns that there will be a cost. To associate with this crowd will cost you your standing with every other group that could matter in the ancient world. If we are not associating with the wrong sorts of people today, I suspect Luke would not recognize us as Christians.