Most of us live our faith in a hit-and-miss way. We know the basics of our religion, and we're fairly certain what things get us into heaven and what sends us down below. Yet we don't approach faith with the same determination with which we tackle a diet or a retirement savings plan.

Sometimes, we imitate Jesus; on other occasions, we act as though He's not even a part of our lives. We simply pray that at the moment of death, we'll be in our "hit mode" so we don't miss out on the goodies God has promised.

Jesus, worried that some of His followers would adopt that very lifestyle, demands we live our faith in a determined, thought-out way. He doesn't want us to leave anything to chance. He expects us to go so far as to minutely plan our dedication to Him and His ministry. Only in that way will we consistently be able to carry our cross and come after Him.

Plan ahead

Notice the examples He employs in the Gospel (Lk 14: 25-33). "Which of you," he asks, "wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion?...Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?" In each case, a lack of planning guarantees failure.

The author of the first reading (Wis 9: 13-18) agrees. Though he believes we can surface the way God works in our everyday lives, he's convinced that God's mind is so unique that we must constantly and deliberately work at giving ourselves over to a quest for heavenly wisdom. "Scarce do we guess the things on earth," he reflects, "and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty; but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?"

This biblical concept of planning and determination culminates in our selection from Paul's letter to Philemon (Phil 9-10, 12-17). Though one of the shortest writings of the Christian Scriptures, it conveys an important message.

Paul has a problem. Onesimus, a slave owned by his friend Philemon, has escaped from his master, found Paul in prison and asked to stay with him as his servant. The apostle obviously wants him to stay. But since he knows Philemon hasn't freed Onesimus, he writes this letter asking him to do so. "I did not want to do anything without your consent," he assures his friends, "so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary."

What next?

Paul depends on Philemon taking his Christian faith seriously. If he's operating only from reflex action, Onesimus doesn't have a prayer. Not only did the slave escape, he destroyed some of his master's property in the process. The whole episode must be eating away at Philemon. At this point, Paul expects him to imitate Jesus completely only because he presumes he's given himself over to Jesus completely.

Yet, Paul not only anticipates that Philemon will deliberately exercise the freedom which comes from his following of Jesus, but he also wants Onesimus to prove his determination to live as a free, Christian man. That's why he gives this letter to Onesimus to deliver!

We have no idea whether Philemon immediately grabbed Onesimus and put him back in chains, or instantly embraced him and sent him back to Paul. It really doesn't make any difference. The reason early Christian communities saved this letter revolved around Paul's solution to his dilemma. Even if the two original parties didn't buy into that solution, those who eventually read these lines knew that Paul also was reminding them to examine the depth of their own day-by-day response to Jesus' call. Totally free actions of faith rarely happen by accident.

The only way to be certain that we'll always carry on Jesus' ministry is to put that ministry at the center of our lives.