Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Few of us really give much consideration to the enormity of the gift of God to us in Christ, or precisely what that means, and just how life changing that truly is. Our Readings this week focus precisely on this seismic shift in reality, as Jesus and Paul grapple with this issue and seek to bring home to their followers what it means. For us, one of the traps we easily fall into with our Gospel, (Luke 14:25-33) with all its hard talk of abandoning family and possessions, is that we read it literally especially as we only read bits of the text. In so doing we easily miss the point and end up bewailing our inability to do precisely that, rather than look at the larger picture. It is to this larger picture that we must turn our attention.
Our Reading from Wisdom (9:13-18) speaks of the inadequacies of the human being in relation to God and of the impossibility of our ever knowing ‘the intentions’ or mind of God. Coming from a philosophically dualist valuation of the human being, it separates the human mind from the body and sees the latter as of little value. “For a perishable body presses down the soul, and this tent of clay weighs down the teeming mind.” For such men, schooled in a Platonist tradition, the best that could be hoped for was to shed the confines of the earthly body and hope for a linking of the immortal soul with the source of creation.
But this is not the Christian view. The whole point of the Incarnation, of God becoming human and redeeming us in and through his fleshly body, lies precisely in his hallowing, making holy, the very materiality of our earthly existence. In vivid contrast to Wisdom’s claim that God’s mind (intention) is unknowable; the Christian claim is precisely the opposite. God the Son, who ‘threw away’ divinity for us, has shown us precisely what God’s plan for us is. Ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven by the bodily death and resurrection of God the Son, we are now fit for heaven, sharers in the divine nature in the wording of the Petrine Letters, destined as St John has it in Jesus’ great prayer, to be One as Jesus and the Father are One. In Jesus therefore the mind of God is not hidden but opened wide for you and for me.
In our Gospel Jesus is shown working desperately to get both his followers, and all those in Israel, to appreciate the enormity of the change which has come upon them. God’s revelation of himself, and therefore of his plans for us in and through Jesus, imply a radical transformation of society, both that of his time and ours. You will remember that last week’s Gospel was about the tragic-comic grab for the best seats at a banquet following Jesus’ healing of a man with dropsy. We are flies on the wall at this most challenging and awkward moment when Jesus pulls the plug on the carefully crafted system of rules governing the way society ticked, and showed it up for what it was. The story then continues with the great banquet in which the giver represents God the Father and the invited all cry off with fatuous excuses. It is a scene painfully vivid with rejection of God’s great offer of himself. Our Gospel is its sequel, and as I previously remarked, we can miss the point if we just get hung up on the ‘rejection of family’ stuff. The whole context points us in a much more significant direction, and we need to keep this uppermost in our minds. Renunciation is there but its entire purpose is quite different.
This is beautifully, even hilariously illustrated by Paul’s Letter to Philemon (9-10.12-17). The situation is as follows. Paul has pinched the services of a trusted slave of the wealthy businessman Philemon from Colossae. Paul was in prison in Ephesus and needed someone to continue his missionary work and help him out. Stealing someone’s slave was a very serious thing and potentially could have made matters far worse for Paul. His solution was to exploit the existing patronage system to get both himself and the hapless Onesimus off the hook, and boy, does he play the system to perfection.
Paul plays both on the system of slavery and that of patronage. Onesimus may be a slave of Philemon’s, but Paul is Christ’s slave – now giving slavery a power and glamour it never had in the real world. Christ himself is describes as becoming as a slave in Philippians. Philemon was a Christian, so he would not want to fall out with Paul, one of the predominant preachers and missionaries of the time. Paul claims that in Christ he ‘begat’ the slave, making him as it were of his own flesh. When therefore Onesimus returns, he bears as it were, the imprint/identity of Paul himself. By implication, he could not be given his deserved punishment – flogging or death. Paul plays on the fact that whilst he is Christ’s slave, he is also his agent or ambassador, acting in the person of Christ himself and therefore of enormous clout, a far superior patron to Philemon. Paul insists that through Onesimus he sees Philemon himself acting as his co-agent for the Gospel. Here then, in this dramatic overturning of traditional society and its mores, we see Paul both play the system – if Philemon accepts he will have Christ for his patron like Paul – and both will have the most superior patron imaginable; and of course, Paul gets himself off the hook for Philemon could not possibly charge Paul with theft, or beat Onesimus! What a tour de force
The whole point of all this rambling set of stories is to emphasise just how God overturns the social order. None of us will ever be worthy of the Kingdom, but by His grace we will be gifted it. We have to begin by opening ourselves to the enormity of God’s love for us, and somehow or other emulate Jesus who ‘emptied himself’ for our salvation. That requires us radically to rethink entire areas of our own lives. If we can do so with the wiliness of a Paul, then even better.