23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time - Cycle C
4 September 2016
St. Benedict the Moor Parish
I have been asked to share some remarks in light of it being Labor Day weekend. Naturally, there are many ways that one can develop a reflection for this annual September observance. We could talk about the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. We could be risky and make some witty comments about the November election and issues like free trade deals, the “Fight for Fifteen” and maternity leave policies. We could talk about the decline experienced in union membership. We could speak about rights in the workplace.
Perhaps a better place to begin is Pope Francis. From the beginning of his Pontificate, my jaw has dropped from his gestures. Days after the conclave, he returned to his pre-conclave hotel to pay the bill himself. I like to imagine him saying, “Oh, yes, I checked in under a different name.”
At about the same time, he called the kiosk in Argentina to cancel his newspaper subscription. Or remember when he visited the Vatican print shop or ate with Vatican workers in the cafeteria. I suspect that everyone finished their vegetables that day before launching into dessert!
What then, might Pope Francis be calling us to, given this example? First, Pope Francis, over and over again, gives witness to seeing the poor who are most often invisible to us.
Second, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis asks us to see our participation in the economy more clearly. So much of what he has written in recent years is structured around the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Frankly, I hear him talking about confession far more than his recent predecessors. His recent book, The Name of God is Mercy, recounts stories of Pope John Paul I as a great confessor, and Pope Francis shares advice to priests about being a confessor. On Thursday, Pope Francis’ message for the Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation is structured around the Rite of Reconciliation: an examination of conscience, the confession itself, “a firm purpose of amendment,” and, perhaps a penance in the additional corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
What might it mean for me to see more clearly? There is an old phrase: “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” How do I spend and what does it suggest about me? Since February, I go to the Metro Market on Van Buren and Juneau. Sadly, I do not know one employee there by name. They have been kind enough: they direct me to the item I need, they ring up my purchases, and they place my items in my durable bags. They keep the store clean and shelves stocked, and I have not bothered to learn one name. Also, if I reflect upon my purchases, I eat cereal with fruit almost every day for breakfast. Today, I had Honey Nut Cheerios with fresh strawberries. There is a boycott on Driscoll’s right now as some workers in Mexico claim that they are paid just $6 a day for their labors. My shirt was made in Bangladesh. The workers who made this shirt were probably paid about $2.20, not for this shirt, but for their day’s labor. When we go home for lunch, the lettuce on our sandwich or in our salad was harvested by an underpaid worker. If we stop for fast food or go to a restaurant, we know the wages cannot care for a family. Our cell phones, chocolate, coffee, and clothing are rife with supply chains that include human trafficking and systemic violations of people’s human rights. Is there anything we can do? Is the Gospel simply inspirational? Or is it programmatic?
The second reading, Paul’s letter to Philemon, suggests a personal way forward. As Catholics, our reading of the Bible is often uneven. Some may have read the Scriptures cover-to-cover, but, if you have never read a book of the Bible all the way through, here is your chance. Philemon is just 25 verses, and we heard a very significant portion today. To get inside it, we need to understand that we have heard just half of a conversation. Another half-- what lead up to it or what follows-- is shrouded in a certain mystery, but we can make some educated guesses.
Philemon was a wealthy man is Colossae. He gets a letter from St. Paul, who had baptized him. Paul was writing from prison, “a prisoner for Christ.” Getting a letter back in those days was an important thing, and such a letter would have been read aloud, often in front of an audience. In days before FedEx and UPS and the U.S. Postal Service, this letter was carried by someone close to Paul, by all appearances the letter was carried by Onesimus. Who was Onesimus? He apparently was baptized by Paul, served him during his imprisonment, and, now, Paul is sending a person dear to his own heart to Philemon. But there is another crucial detail about the message and the messenger. Onesimus, a runaway slave, had been a slave to Philemon. Paul’s message: receive Onesimus as a brother.
What is Philemon to do? He has three choices, it would seem. First, Onesimus is a runaway slave. If Philemon receives him as a brother, Philemon risks losing all of his other slaves. He also risks a shunning from his social and economic peers. He has every “right” to put Philemon to death. Second, perhaps, he could be merciful and give him a severe flogging or make him a “house slave” rather than a “field slave.” The third, most radical choice, is to do as Paul asks: receive him as a brother, again risking all on behalf of the Gospel.
Given such choices and ramifications, what did he do? I would suggest, as many others have, that he indeed did receive him as a brother. First, that the letter exists today suggests that this is true. If he had killed or merely flogged Onesimus, he probably would have destroyed the letter. Instead, that the letter survives suggests that it was lovingly cared for and held in a place of respect. Secondly, and while this is far less assured to be one and the same person, following St. Timothy as bishop of the nearby city of Ephesus was a bishop named Onesimus. The romantic in me likes the notion that a former slave became a bishop in the early church.
We are embedded in networks of privilege, prejudice and power so commonplace that often neither oppressors nor victims are aware of them. Hence, the violence and pain that most afflicts us today is hidden: the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relationships between communities and nations, that allows for a slow decay of culture and makes us indifferent. Though not as noticeable as a bomb or a gunshot, these realities are just as deadly. Like Philemon, we must have the vision to see and the courage to act.
We are called to re-imagine God’s preference for the poor. We live in what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture,” that treats people as things and is tempted to discard the weak and the vulnerable, those without money or power or voice. This story upends that vision and makes “useful” one who was deemed useless. It is life in solidarity, an old word, but our word. Solidarity is not a one-time gesture, but a permanent way of being in the world. The vision to see and the courage to act is about being in right relationship with God, with family, with my adversary, with the low wage worker, with care of our common home. The radical vision of seeing the other as Christ, of receiving the other as a brother or sister, is as powerful today as in the days of Scripture. If we really seek to live it, it will upend our world, and we will upend the world.
Human Thread Campaign