September 4, 2016
Philemon; Luke 14:25-33
Are you struck by Jesus’ words in the Gospel about hating one’s family? I have always assumed it meant we have to sever relationships with family if they resist Jesus’ message. It is true that belief in Jesus did result in broken family relationships. But in this case, it has a different sense.
The Greek word is miseo. It is correctly translated as “hate” but we need to put the word into its context. In Aramaic, there is no in-between word – there is no word for “like” or “dislike”. There are only the two extremes of love and hate. What Jesus means is that to properly follow him, one must love him the most and put second anyone and anything else. So, we must love Jesus and only like our family in comparison. Jesus wants from us extreme love.
In order to truly follow Jesus, then, we must count the cost. When we build a house, or start a ministry project, or plan a trip, we have to calculate what it will cost compared to what we have in the bank. We have to figure out what are we willing to spend in order to carry Jesus’ cross.
Paul’s letter to his good friend Philemon helps us talk about this. What are we willing to give up in order to follow Jesus? Philemon is a wealthy man with a number of servants and slaves. One of them is named Onesimus, which means Useful. Except, it seems he is not very useful to Philemon. Perhaps he is young and willful, like many teenagers we know. Perhaps he seems to have no obvious skills. Perhaps he refuses to believe in Jesus, preferring the Roman deities, and is obnoxious about his preference.
It is not clear how he came to be with Paul. Speculation is that he is a runaway slave. Or perhaps he was sent by Philemon to serve Paul while he is in prison. I imagine a note: “Dear Paul, This note is carried by my slave Onesimus. I have no use for him, but you may find him useful, at least to run errands for you. Yours in Christ, Philemon”
Onesimus gets to know Paul and is converted to belief in Jesus. He serves Paul well, and they become like father and son. There comes a time when it makes sense to Paul to send Onesimus back to Philemon, to ask for his freedom. So, Paul writes to his friend.
“As your superior in the faith, I could command you to free Onesimus, but I hope that you would do this out of your love of Jesus. I have grown to love him, and I would like to keep him with me, but I dare not, because he belongs to you. So, I am sending him back to you. If he has done anything, if he owes you, please charge it to my account, and I will pay for it. I pray that you will receive him, not as a slave but as a brother.”
Paul is asking Philemon to free Onesimus from slavery. This is the cost of following Jesus. As a slave, there is monetary value to owning Onesimus. Will Philemon set Onesimus free, or is that too great a cost?
We don’t know the result of this letter. However, the letter was addressed to several people, including the church at Philemon’s house. So, there were witnesses to Paul’s request. In addition, the letter survived and was copied and passed around. So, it is likely that Philemon did give Onesimus his freedom.
Legal freedom is not all that Onesimus got from this letter. He received a change in status. Philemon must also pay the cost of seeing Onesimus in a new way. He can no longer look down on him, and order him around, and complain about how useless he is. Now he must welcome him as a useful brother in Christ and an equal.
In our lives, we too must find ways to put Jesus first, despite the cost. In the process of following Jesus more closely, we will be useful to him and to others.
Here’s a story: Massimo Bottura owns the #1 restaurant in the world. The average cost of a meal in his restaurant in northern Italy is around $250. He also owns a new restaurant near Olympic Village in Rio. The cost of a meal there is $0. But you have to be homeless to dine there.
The restaurant is staffed with uniformed waiters, art on the walls, and fine cuisine. The source of the food is left-overs from the restaurants in Olympic Village, food that was not cooked or prepared and not served that day, food that was destined for the trash, but perfectly safe and usable.
Bottura’s plan is to draw attention to the amount of food that is wasted every day around the world, food that could be used to feed hungry people. He also wants to rebuild the dignity of the people who come to dine in this restaurant.
Now that the Olympics are over, the restaurant will be transformed into a restaurant that serves lunch to paying customers, and uses the proceeds to feed the homeless in the evening. A homeless customer said, “It’s not just about the food. Just sitting here, treated with respect on an equal footing, makes me think I have a chance."
We can imagine that Onesimus felt the same way. After his time with Paul, he gained self-respect and became useful, and beloved. Freed from slavery, made equal with Paul and Philemon as a brother in Christ, he felt he had a chance.
What does it cost you to follow Jesus in your daily life? I’m not just talking about how deeply you dig into your pockets for the offering, although that is one consideration. Do you put following Jesus above your family members, as Jesus insists? Do you consider how much food you waste, and how hungry the homeless are? Do you treat others as your equal, as your brother or sister in Christ? Do you pray for your enemies? For our nation’s enemies? What does it cost you to follow Jesus?
Please pray with me: Jesus, you gave your life to show us how to love, sacrificially. You taught us to put you first, above all else. But we forget. Please forgive us, and lead us to follow you more closely. Help us to be useful to you and to one another, as Onesimus was. In your holy name. Amen