FROM A READING FOR SEPT. 4, 23RD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
'Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost?...' -- Luke 14:25-33

One of the shortest books in the Christian Scriptures packs one of the biggest wallops. Paul's letter to Philemon isn't long enough to have chapters, yet its message has challenged Christians for almost 2,000 years.

When he dictated these few lines (Philemon 9-10,12-17) and mailed them to his old friend, the Apostle was faced with a problem none of us today have to deal with: a runaway slave.

Onesimus, Philemon's slave, had not only escaped from his master's house after destroying some of his property, but eventually ran to Paul, expecting the Apostle to protect him. Does Paul keep him or return him? The problem becomes even more complicated when Onesimus converts to Christianity and Paul baptizes him.

Obviously, our faith had not yet evolved to the point where slavery would be unconditionally prohibited. (That wouldn't happen for about another 1,800 years.) That's why it's important to note the principles Paul employs to come to a conclusion. He couldn't just check papal documents or conciliar decrees; he didn't even have a catechism.

First, God's will
It's clear Paul agrees with the Wisdom (9:13-18b) author that our first moral principle is always to do "what [God] intends." But, as we hear in Sunday's reading, at times that's hard to do.

"Scarce do we guess the things on Earth," the author reflects, "but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?" Such certainty can come only from God's Holy Spirit. Without that force in our daily lives, the paths of those on Earth could never be made straight.

Luke's Jesus presumes (Lk 14:25-33) we must be completely committed to that spirit. Nothing or no one can be more important than that commitment, not even life itself.

It's certainly not something that comes easily. It can take as much planning as building a tower or waging a war. But there's no other way to daily carry our cross.

Perhaps the first principle Paul operates from is Jesus' (and modern moral theologians') belief that whatever we do, we do freely. Things done from force or fear don't count toward our eternal salvation.

As difficult as it might to achieve such freedom, the Apostle expects both Philemon and Onesimus to have no force or fear in whatever they do. That means he first respectfully asks Philemon to free Onesimus and permit him to help Paul.

Second, our cross
On the other hand, he also expects Onesimus to freely return to his former owner and permit himself to again be in his power before he asks for his release. In each case, Philemon could freely say, "No," just as Onesimus could freely say, "I'm not going back!"

We presume both said yes, but there's no way to prove that. It's an essential part of carrying our cross that we create situations in which people are free to do the unpredictable. With such a commitment to freedom, it was only a matter of time before slavery would be condemned by the Church.

Paul is also guided by his belief that, once baptized, we each become a new creation; so, according to his theology, Onesimus is just as much a free person as Philemon, and Philemon is just as much a slave as Onesimus. We're all one.

Perhaps one of the reasons we're more comfortable just following rules and regulations instead of making decisions based on Christian principles is that there's much less personal dying in the rules and regulations. Someone else already made the decision for us.