23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Book of Wisdom provides this weekend’s liturgy with its first Scriptural reading.
According to scholars, this book was written in Alexandria, Egypt, by a Jew who had emigrated from the Holy Land, or whose ancestors had come from the Holy Land. Originally, it was composed in Greek. Since it was written outside the Holy Land and not in Hebrew, Orthodox Jews have never accepted it as genuine Scripture. The Church, however, long has revered it as inspired by the Holy Spirit.
As is so much of the Wisdom Literature, and indeed so much of the Book of Wisdom, this weekend’s reading is a series of admonitions and comments. It insists that the deepest and best human logic, or wisdom, reflects what God spoke through Moses and the prophets.
The reading simply states the obvious. Much of life cannot be predicted beforehand nor fully understood. Humans are limited. God is all-wise. The wonder is that God has guided us by speaking to us through representatives, such as Moses and the prophets.
For its second reading, the Church gives us a passage from the Epistle to Philemon. Only rarely is this epistle the source of a reading in the liturgy. Possibly a reason for this is that Philemon is so short, in fact the shortest volume in the New Testament, with only one chapter, and in this chapter are only 25 verses.
The story is dramatic. Paul writes to Philemon, whose slave, Onesimus, escaped from Philemon’s custody and went to be with Paul. Now, in this letter, Paul announces that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, but Paul counsels Philemon to receive this runaway slave as a brother in Christ.
Paul tells Philemon that surely no punishment should await Onesimus. (Running away from slavery was a very serious crime in Roman law at the time.)
Beyond the particulars, several lessons strongly appear. Urging Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother, Paul insists, that regardless of human conventions and laws, all humans are equal in dignity, having been created by God, and having been redeemed by Christ.
As a consequence, every disciple must live according to this principle of loving all others.
St. Luke’s Gospel supplies the last reading. The Gospel already has made clear that true discipleship builds upon a deeply personal wish to follow the Lord, but enabling a disciple to express this wish and to abide by it requires not just determination but God’s strength and insight.
Furthermore, the Gospel bluntly says that many obstacles can stand between a disciple’s initial intention to follow Christ and actually living as a disciple.
(It is important to remember that Luke was written when Christianity, albeit an infant religion in the Roman Empire, very much was sailing into the hot, strong winds of cultural opposition to Gospel values and even harsh persecution under the law.)
A tradition, and hardly farfetched when considering the situation, is that Christians had to face much pressure to forsake the Gospel from their loved ones. Thus, the Evangelist here recalls that Jesus said a true disciple should turn away even from father and mother, brother or sister, if these close relatives urged abandoning Christ.
Hard advice, but good Christians should anticipate a struggle and prepare themselves for it.
The Gospel sets the stage. Living the Christian life is difficult. Christians must withstand much if they are committed.
While pressures may come from the outside, a strong pressure often overlooked is to supplant what God’s teaching with human judgments.
By standing firmly against all pressures, a disciple stays the course. It requires determination. A disciple first must admit personal inadequacy and humbly ask for strength and wisdom from God. Blessedly, if earnestly sought, this gift of strength and wisdom will come.
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