Every three years, I encourage priests to have their lectors proclaim St. Paul's entire letter to Philemon this Sunday (Philemon 9-10,12-17).

It's only 25 verses, much smaller than many of the Lenten Gospel passages from St. John. In the long run, it'll save time: Priests won't have to give lots of background for the passage during their homilies.

Though short and directed to just one person, the letter contains a practical application of one of Paul's fundamental faith tenets: God calls us to be free, to break through the limits that normally restrict our relations with other.

Seeking freedom

The author of the first reading (Wisdom 9:13-18b) reflects on some of these limits: "The deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns."

A force in us wants to break out, but our humanity keeps it chained down. There's a dimension in our lives we're never able to express.

For Paul, one of these repressed components revolves around our desire to freely give ourselves to others. We all realize that many of our acts of giving aren't free. We're forced into them, afraid of the consequences if we don't do them, worried because we have a reputation to maintain or an image to convey. Freedom rarely is in the mix.

In the Apostle's communication with Philemon, he creates a situation in which both the recipient and the carrier of the letter can freely do something.

Philemon is one of Paul's converts, a wealthy person, a leader in the Christian community in Colossae and a slave owner. One of his slaves, Onesimus, ran away and came to Paul. Onesimus asked, after being baptized, to help Paul in his ministry.

Paul not only sends this letter to Philemon, asking him to freely release his slave and permit him to return, but also gives the letter to Onesimus to deliver! The slave is freely asking his master for his freedom. (We possess no return letter from Philemon to Paul. But since the early Church saved and circulated the first half of the correspondence, we presume Philemon freed Onesimus.)

Jesus first

For Christians, such free and freeing actions don't happen by accident or on the spur of the moment. They result from people reflecting deeply and long on what it means to share the faith of Jesus: the very point Luke's Jesus brings up in the Gospel (Luke 14:25-33).

Nothing should stand in the way of our determination to imitate Jesus' dying and rising: "If anyone comes to me without hating father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, and even their own lives, they cannot be my disciple." We know the word "hate" in this context is a Semitic exaggeration and not meant to be taken literally, but Jesus' message is still clear: "I'm number-one; everyone or everything else in your life is second."

Not everyone can live such a radical existence. That's why Jesus reminds "the crowds" that true discipleship involves lots of planning. If we engage in intense preparation in other levels of our life, we should also do it in those elements that concern our faith.

Without such determined planning, our Christian response to people and situations often depends on "how I feel today." It's precisely from such emotional limits that our faith is geared to free us.

(9/6/07)