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September 4 2016 (C) Twenty-third Sunday of the year

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Wakeup call for ethnic and culture Catholics

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Wisdom 9:13-18).Who can divine the will of God? The author of the Book of Wisdom (full title: The Wisdom of Solomon), composed in Egypt about 30 BC, writes as if its author was King Solomon, a person proverbial for wisdom. The first part of the book (chapters 1-9) is all about wisdom; the second part (chapters 10-19) is on sacred history from Adam to the Exodus from Egypt as guided by divine wisdom. The Bible (1 Kings 3:3-9) presents Solomon as having prayed to God for wisdom at the beginning of his reign (“a wise and understanding mind”), a request granted by God. The first part of the book of wisdom finishes with “Solomon’s” lengthy prayer for wisdom (already prayed for in Wisdom 7:7-22). Wisdom is personified, not a person, but a personification of the functions of the Lord God of Israel. It is presented as having been with God at creation, of knowing God’s mind and plans. Participation in this wisdom is necessary for humans if their lives are to be guided according to God’s will. Without this wisdom human reasonings and intentions are uncertain. Due to an influence from Greek philosophy the author says that “a perishable body presses down the soul”. This is not a dualism, as if matter were evil, but simply that our human deliberations are weak, due to the body and its concerns. “Solomon” notes that it is hard enough for mortals to understand earthly matters, leading to the question as to who can discover heavenly things. Knowledge of heavenly matters comes from God’s gift of Wisdom, said to be sent by God’s holy spirit from above. Here “spirit” means more or less the same thing as Wisdom, a personification of divine functions and operations. Wisdom, this divine presence in history, has revealed God’s will to mortals and guided their paths.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 89[90]). O Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to the next.

Second Reading (Philemon). Have him back, not as a slave any more, but as a dear brother. This is the shortest of Paul’s letters, with a mere twenty-five verses. It was written by Paul from prison, probably in Ephesus, although some believe it was Caesarea or Rome. It was addressed to Philemon, a well-to-do Christian, probably at Colossae. The background of this letter is as follows: Philemon had a slave called Onesimus who ran away from him, and reached Paul in prison. He possibly had heard his master Philemon speak highly of Paul’s kindness. He became friendly with Paul and was converted by him from paganism to Christ, and helped Paul in preaching the gospel. Although Paul could well do with Onesimus’s services, he realized that it was a very serious offence for a slave to run away, something for which he could be severely punished by his master. Paul decides to have Onesimus return to his master Philemon, now as a Christian. Paul directs this letter to Philemon, making the point that all three of them, Paul, Philemon and Onesimus, are now brothers in the Lord, thus equal in God’s sight. Paul pleads with Philemon to be kind to his dear friend Onesimus, now also a brother in the Lord to Philemon. He would like to have Onesimus back with him again, but only with the good will of his master Philemon. While careful to write as a friend, not with his apostolic authority, Paul ends his brief letter with the words (not in today’s reading): “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say”. What seems implied here is not merely that Philemon will receive Onesimus kindly, and not punish him as a runaway, as he was entitled to, but that he will actually grant his slave Onesimus his freedom.

            The implications of this brief letter are immense, as indicative of Paul’s real attitude to slavery. Slavery was a central to Greek and Roman society. Paul does not speak directly against it in his letters. He can say that in Christ there is neither slave of freeman, that in Christ all are equal, including slaves and their masters, in Christ slaves are freed persons in the Lord. While this, and Paul’s attitude in the letter to Philemon, should have given a basis for the abolition of slavery, the practice continued for centuries in Christian countries and by Christians.

The Gospel (Luke 14:25-31). None of you can be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions. Today’s Gospel reading is a very important one on the requirement of discipleship, of belief in Jesus and of a life in keeping with the demands of this belief. The reading, however, can be somewhat off-putting by reason of its language, and before getting to the central message itself a few words on the history behind the composition of our gospels may be in order. Jesus in good part preached the Gospel in Galilee, in the Aramaic language. After the resurrection the early Church was centred on Jerusalem, where Aramaic and Greek were current. At a given time a collection of Jesus’ sayings was made in Greek, with an Aramaic background. Both Matthew and Luke used this document, Luke often reproducing the original text where Matthew might rephrase if clarity so required. Thus in Hebrew, and presumably Aramaic, the word “hate” might in certain situations means simply “love less”, “dislike” (Genesis 29:31,3; Deuteronomy 21:15-15), as in Romans (9:13): “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated”. Thus, when Jesus speaks of “hating father and mother” he means preferring them to himself. The original readers would have understood. Matthew (10:37) avoided the problem by rephrasing as: “Anyone who loves father or mother (son or daughter) more than me is not worthy of me”. Another point calling for comment is the word “disciple”. Jesus had disciples of different kinds: literal followers, who gave up everything to live an itinerant life with him; within this group there were the Twelve Apostles. But there was also a larger group of disciples who believed in him, and supported him and his mission, who were not literally followers. We may also recall (with Luke 18:20 and other texts) that Jesus held family values and respect for parents in high regard, while also making clear that his coming and call would cause division within families. We can now return to the Gospel reading. Jesus stresses the need of total allegiance to himself, to his person. As already noted by Luke (9:23, read on the Twelfth Sunday), one’s cross (made by Gospel demands) must be carried. The gift of being called to follow Christ is pure grace, not merited (called from highways and byways; Luke 14:21-24), but it makes its demands. Christians should weigh up in advance what real service of the Gospel implies, illustrated by the examples of the unfinished tower, and the army preparing for war. Giving up all possessions was required for disciples following Jesus literally; for other disciples, readiness to do this if required; for all detachment.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Wakeup call for ethnic and culture Catholics

As the Church grows in numbers in a country or community, when it experiences no opposition or persecution, and may even be respected in all its works, its members may become nominal, ethnic or cultural Catholics with little contact with the living Christ or the Church itself through regular Church attendance and practice of the sacraments. Such contact may be reduced to baptism, marriage and burial, the second of these becoming less frequent in recent years.

            And yet all these would identify themselves as Catholics, and register themselves as such in census returns. Certain writers would refer to those as ethnic or cultural Catholics. Since faith is a divine gift from God, it is not for anyone to judge whether these have the faith or not. Only God can judge this. However, since all believers in Christ are chosen to be witnesses to him to the world, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, such passive, ethnic or cultural Christianity is far removed from what Jesus calls his followers to be. We live in a world which is ever becoming more secular, with a tendency, if not a plan, to push religious beliefs to the margins, with little or no place in public life. Religious conviction can be seen as a danger to, if not incompatible with, public office. In certain political circles it can be unacceptable to profess oneself as first a Christian, or Catholic, and then as a member of one’s country or one’s political party, as if there were an incompatibility, which there is not. Christ would certainly add today “country or political party” to the matters not to be preferred to him.

            How the priority of the allegiance to Christ and present day realities are to be reconciled is a matter for individual and collective conscience. Allegiance to Christ must be fostered by devotion to the person of Christ and the Church. Lessons can still be drawn from the examples of the tower and the preparation for war of the Gospel reading. The person of Christ must be central. Devotion to his message requires quiet reflection on how to practice it.