Year C: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Second Reading: based on St Paul’s Letter to Philemon: 9-10, 12-17)
St Paul is writing to Philemon about the return of his slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has, in fact run away from Philemon’s household and, it is suggested did a lot of damage in doing so. Somehow, he found his way to Paul who converted him to Christianity. Eventually, St Paul realises that Onesimus is a runaway slave and send him back. As he does, he makes it clear that Onesimus may be coming back as a runaway slave - but that he is also Philemon’s brother-in-Christ. This is important because, as a runaway slave, Onesimus had no rights and could have been severely treated - even crucified for his actions.
However, St Paul does not suggest that keeping slaves was wrong in itself. In an age when slavery is nearly abolished, this is hard to understand - how can one person own another? In Roman times, this would not have been a problem - slaves were an accepted part of life.
It is interesting that, in the early Church, many of the converts were slaves - women - the poor. In a world that limited their freedom, they saw in the Gospel the promise of a different kind of freedom and dignity. As a Christian, he or she knew that they were an adopted son or daughter of God. They may be slaves and dispossessed in this life - but knew that glory and eternal joy awaited them.
Marx called religion the “opium of the people” - something that kept the poor and dispossessed in their place. He had a point - for many years, religion was used to do that. But, eventually, the Spirit opened people’s eyes and it was the determined faith of 18th and 19th century Christians that led to the widespread (though still incomplete) abolition of slavery.
To the point that Marx was making - and, in no way to say that slavery and oppression are right - it might be worth suggesting that those who agree with him should listen to some of the songs and poems sung and prayed by slaves and people who are oppressed. Some are laments - and heart-breaking - but there are many that speak of the power and endurance of faith. In the face of all that life can throw at them - there is still a spirit - born of the Spirit - that the world cannot overcome!
What does it mean for me?
Text © 2006 WellspringWeekly Wellsprings ]