Gospel For Today: 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time


Have you ever had someone tell you that the Bible condones slavery?  I have.  Usually it is in the context of a conversation about abortion or homosexuality.  The argument they make generally runs along these lines: Christians have no business condemning abortion or homosexual acts as sins when the Bible they claim to believe in says slavery is permissible.  We all agree today that slavery is a horrible injustice; if the Bible can be wrong about that, it can be wrong about other things.
Well, there are a lot of problems with that line of thinking; not the least of which is that the Bible does not actually condone slavery.  People who try to tell you that it does generally misunderstand the Bible itself.  There are two key points about the Bible which are important to keep in mind.
The Bible is a collection of books.  We think of the Bible as a single volume because that’s generally how it’s published and sold to us today.  But that single bound volume is really an anthology of multiple books, written sometimes thousands of years apart by different human authors, to different audiences, for different purposes.  There are 46 books that make up what we call the Old Testament, and another 27 books in the New Testament.  Some of these books are histories, some are poetry, some are letters, some are books of law, some are allegory, etc.
During the time when all of these different books were written, slavery was commonly practiced by many civilizations.  Some would make the argument that the slavery practiced in the ancient world was much more benign than the slavery practiced in the American south, but that’s really beside the point.  It’s wrong for one human being to own another, regardless of how benign you are.  The fact that the Bible truthfully relates the fact that many historical societies included some form of slavery does not mean God thinks this is a good practice.
The Bible is one book.  Without contradicting anything I just said, we have to also realize that the collected books in Sacred Scripture make up one complete work written by a single Divine Author.  Even though Genesis and Revelation were written thousands of years apart by different human authors, they are the beginning and the ending of a single story written by one mind.  This means that anything in Sacred Scripture needs to be read and understood in the context of the whole.  Taking one verse or passage out of context as a proof text that “the Bible says this or that” is a foolish practice.
The Catholic Church knows the Bible.  It’s our book, after all!  Catholic theologians have had 2000 years to study every word and verse and to contemplate how everything works together to tell the story God wants told. For example, Moses allowed divorce in the Old Testament, so one could say, “the Bible says divorce is okay.”  But we also know that Jesus in Matthew says this was allowed because of the hardness of their hears, but it was not what God really had in mind with marriage.  So saying “the Bible condones divorce” would be wrong.
Likewise with slavery.  In today’s second reading, we hear one of the “proof texts” that people sometimes use to say the Bible supports slavery.  Paul, who is in prison, is writing to Philemon, and is sending the letter back via Onesimus, who is Philemon’s slave.  Paul says he would have liked to have kept Onesimus for himself, but he didn’t want to do that without Philemon’s consent, so he is sending his slave back to him.  Paul seems to say that it would not be right to take someone’s slave without their permission.  Is St. Paul saying slavery is a legitimate institution?
It is only possible to make that claim if one ignores the larger theme of this passage.  The most important thing to realize is that all three men involved – Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus – are new creations in Christ.  The old rules no longer apply.  This is what Paul is trying to get across.
Look at what he tells Philemon.  He describes himself as Onesimus’ father, and Onesimus as his child.  (Paul regards himself as Onesimus’ spiritual father in the faith, much like we call our priests “father” today).  Even more, Paul calls Onesimus, “my own heart.”
He tells Philemon that he should no longer consider Onesimus as a slave, but as a beloved brother, “as a man and in the Lord.”  In other words Onesimus is his brother in humanity as well as his brother in Christ, and should be regarded as such.
This passage ends with St. Paul telling Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were St. Paul himself.  Clearly he regards Onesimus as his equal and expects Philemon to regard him in the same way.
So why send him back to Philemon at all?  Remember that like Paul and Onesimus, Philemon is a Christian.  Paul has faith that he is not sending Onesimus back into the hands of a pagan master who would abuse and mistreat him, but back to someone who is now his brother in Christ and who would now treat him with affection and love.  St. Paul says this is “so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.”  He’s giving Philemon the opportunity to do the right thing.
Jesus tells us in today’s gospel reading that unless we renounce all our possessions we cannot be His disciples (Lk 14:53).  How can anyone believe that the Bible says it is okay  for people to possess other people when Jesus Himself says we should not possess anything?
The Christian must always have a healthy detachment from anything of this world.  Even though we may “own” goods in the eyes of the world, we know in our hearts that we never truly own anything.  We take nothing with us into eternity and therefore we should let nothing in this world anchor us here and keep us from Christ.  The Christian realizes that God owns everything; the best we can do is to be good stewards of what God entrusts to us.
If this is true of things such as land, wealth and other material goods, how much more true is it of people?  It is a grave sin for one person to treat another as a possession.  This is why slavery is wrong.  But the principle goes well beyond slavery.  Whether you leave WCU to become CEO of a fortune 500 company, or assistant manager of a local Burger King, you should treat the people working under your care with the same love St. Paul expects Philemon to have for Onesimus.
This is even more true for closer relationships you may have – friends and family, and most especially spouses.  If husband and wife treat each other as master and servant, that is an unholy attitude.  The solution St. Paul offers in Ephesians is not for husband and wife to both be exalted as masters, but for them both to be humbled as servants.  “Be subject to one another,” he instructs them (Eph 5:21).
Lastly, we must realize that not only should we never regard another human being as a thing to be owned, we also cannot regard ourselves in this manner.  We do not own our own bodies.  They, too, are a gift from God.  We must therefore treat ourselves as what we are – a valued possession of God’s, purchased by Christ’s blood.
So much of today’s sin is rooted in this false idea that we are our own masters.  Abortion, for example, is built on the double lie that a mother not only “owns” the child in her womb, and therefore can dispose of it at will, but also that she “owns” her own body and can do with that what she will, as well.  We do not own ourselves.  God allows us to be stewards of this earth, but first and foremost we are stewards of our selves.  Sins of the flesh are so grave for the simple reason that we are mistreating something that God cares very deeply about.
I encourage each and every one of you to treat your self as a precious treasure that belongs to Christ, for that is exactly what you are.  Be respectful of your self.  Be respectful of those in your care.  Know that you are not an owner, but a steward.  And love nothing of this world more than you love Jesus Christ.
From your brother in Christ,

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723