September 8, 2019; Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 18C (RCL); Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33.
We don’t like this passage of Luke’s Gospel (and similar passages in all the other Gospels). Commentators try to explain it away, saying Jesus didn’t really mean ‘hate,’ but that the Greek misein is translating some Aramaic phrase that means something like ‘ranked lower in value,’ or some such. The problem with that is Luke wrote reasonable good Greek. He would have picked his vocabulary carefully.
We have plenty of indication that Jesus (or at least his followers) understood himself to be setting up an alternative kinship. This makes even more sense when we remember that the purpose of sacrifice was to establish kinship. The whole edifice of the New Testament is a replacement for the Temple and its sacrificial rituals, and the kinship thereby established. To join in Jesus’ memorial meal, if seen as sacrifice, meant to leave the kinship of one’s birth, and join a new family. Indeed, a person would need to count the cost before joining up.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a pretty good indication of how this worked, and packed into just a few short sentences. Onesimus (ironically, a name that means ‘useful’), a slave of Philemon, has run away to Paul. Paul is in a bind, for having given him sanctuary (though he himself was in prison). Paul would likely have been of the same social rank as Philemon, or perhaps a bit lower — Paul wasn’t well off enough to own slaves. Having Philemon angry at him could have cost him dearly in terms of social standing.
So, Paul pulls out all the stops of this new kinship relationship, claiming to have become Onesimus’ father in his (Paul’s) imprisonment. This implies that Paul has sacrificed with Onesimus, that is, shared the eucharist with him. Paul then reminds Philemon that he (Philemon) owes his very life to Paul, presumably his life in the this new Christian kinship (did Paul baptize Philemon — this seems to imply he did). So while could command Philemon to accept Onesimus back, he implores him on the basis of the love which characterizes this new kinship.
And, Paul expects Philemon to manumit Onesimus — to welcome him not as a slave, but as a brother. Think of what that does to Philemon’s social standing. It puts him, Paul, and Onesimus all on the same level. There’s the payoff for us. We are on the same social level as all others who share a kinship with Jesus. That starts to get uncomfortable.
Jeremiah reminds Israel that just as God has made them, God can unmake them. Our ‘chosen’ status is not something irreversible, but exists at God’s pleasure. Joining the Jesus movement already begins to re-form us into a new humanity, in which all are chosen. So much for being special.