Philemon 1:9-10, 12-17
This is one of those passages where on the face of it Jesus seems inconsistent. In this Sunday’s reading from Luke, he seems to be claiming that following Jesus to enter the kingdom of God requires me to hate my parents, my children, my siblings, and even my own life. How do I square this with the fourth commandment (“Honor thy mother and father,” Ex. 20:12), or the Greatest Commandment to love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength, and my neighbor as myself (Luke 10:27; cf. Deut. 6:5), particular in light of Jesus’ insistence that he has come to fulfill, not to abolish, the law (Matt. 5:17-18; Luke 24:44)?
The answer can be found if we dig a little bit deeper into what Jesus is saying here. Both Origen and Augustine,* two of the most influential theologians of the early Church, taught that when the literal level of scripture seems to teach something contrary to basic logic or morality, that God has put these words into revelation in order to give us pause, to challenge us to look for a deeper, spiritual meaning. This is a classic case of applying that principle.
After starting with these jarring comments that seem to command hatred, he follows it with two parables, in which he claims that such “hatred” or rejection is like laying a wise plan or foundation. Somehow, hating or rejecting these things is comparable to wisely following a plan that will enable one to be Jesus’ disciple. What is Jesus getting at here?
I suggest that we can find some help for thinking through this seeming contradiction in the first reading from the book of Wisdom. The author of Wisdom notes that for humans, even trying to know that “natural” things of this life comes only with difficulty, uncertainty, anxiety, etc. How much more difficult is it to know the things of God, the “things [which] are in heaven,” or “God’s counsel”? In Luke, Jesus tells us that the one who does not hate the things of this life first is like “one who began to build but did not have the resources to finish.” Thus, if keeping our earthly affairs straight is already difficult, how much more difficult will it be to follow Christ if we do not first renounce our attachments to the things of this life. What I think Jesus is trying to us is that this renunciation is the foundation upon which God can build, based on the wisdom from God’s “holy Spirit from on high” and not on human striving.
This same principle might also help to solve an apparent paradox in the reading from St. Paul. Here Paul befriends a slave, Onesmus, and sends him back to his owner, Philemon. Doesn’t this seem to contradict what Paul writes so forcefully and eloquently elsewhere, that “there is no longer slave or free” but all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28)? And yet there is a subtle, and perhaps overlooked challenge in Paul’s words to Philemon, when he writes that “I did not want to do anything without consent” – such as proclaim Onesimus no longer bound as a slave – “so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.” Paul seems to be hinting that Philemon knows the right thing to do, but that it will only benefit him if he willingly surrenders what is his rightful (that is, legal – at least in the ancient world) claim upon Onesimus. Philemon has an opportunity to renounce – to hate – not Onesimus but rather his attachment to the power that he has over him. From there, as Paul knows as a wise teacher, God can build upon what Philemon willingly renounces.
Thus, in contemplating this week’s readings in relation to the moral life, it may well be worth asking ourselves, “what attachments am I hanging onto – even attachments that I may have a perfectly legitimate ‘right’ to claim – that I could let go of, in order to create space for God to make ‘the paths of those on earth…straight’ (Wis 9:18)”?
*Origen first articulated this in On First Principles, and Augustine taught something similar in On Christian Doctrine.