Some of the misconceptions put forward against Christianity is that it curtails freedom. Some atheists and agnostics argue that Christianity is very stifling and suffocating as it puts a lot of demands.
On the other hand, true believers in Christ can attest to the fact that following Jesus is a very liberating experience. They truly experienced Jesus’ words: “The truth will set you free” (John 8: 32). They experienced true freedom after they discovered the truth about themselves and the world as a consequence of following Jesus. Subsequently, this entailed throwing off the lies and deceptions to which they have been captive for so long.
In the second reading of today’s 22nd Sunday in ordinary time, St. Paul wrote to Phelemon on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave who had wronged his owner Philemon, to receive him no longer as a slave but as a “brother beloved.”
that you might have him back forever,
no longer as a slave
but more than a slave, a brother,
beloved especially to me, but even more so to you,
as a man and in the Lord.
So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.
St. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a prison letter, co-authored by Paul with Timothy, to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church. It is often assumed from the letter that Onesimus, a slave, had fled Philemon, his owner, after stealing money, as Paul states in verse 18 that if Onesimus owes anything, Philemon should charge this to Paul’s account. Sometime after leaving, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, although again the details are unclear. He may have been arrested and imprisoned alongside Paul. Alternatively, he may have previously heard Paul’s name (as his owner was a Christian) and so travelled to him for help. After meeting Paul, Onesimus became a Christian believer. An affection grew between them, and Paul would have been glad to keep Onesimus with him. However, he considered it better to send him back to Philemon with an accompanying letter, which aimed to effect reconciliation between them as Christian brothers.
There is a very radical idea that Paul puts forward in this letter. Paul was implying to Philemon that the consequence of Onesimus’ conversion to Christ is that the runaway is no longer simply a slave but a “brother in the Lord.” Let us remember that slavery was an accepted institution in Paul’s time. In this letter, therefore, Paul states a revolutionary idea, especially during those times, that there are no longer divisions between slaves and free people in Christ. In fact, as Paul wrote in another letter – the letter to the Galatians (3:28) – all divisions and exclusion should be eliminated in the new family of God:
There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Baptism into the body of Christ created an equality of dignity that transcends distinctions grounded in race, law, and even gender. Paul has planted a seed here that, with painful slowness, will come to fruition centuries later.
The Christian paradox of freedom is written all over the letter. Although Paul was in prison, he was proclaiming about freedom. His external environment may have been the prison but internally he was absolutely free. He talked about the new-found identity of Onesimus who is no longer a slave but a brother on equal putting with fellow Christians because of his conversion to Christ. He was imploring Philemon to accept Onesimos back into his care with this new found freedom in Christ.
Indeed, you cannot hold captive a person even if you incarcerate him. The names of Nelson Mandela, our national hero Jose Rizal, St. Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, immediately comes to my mind. Sometimes those who are in jail are freer than those who are living outside of jail but are held captive by their own internal demons for so long.
Paul’s sensitive and clever letter of intercession illustrates well the point of this Sunday’s Gospel. When Jesus lays down the shocking teaching that following him entails a readiness to turn one’s back on family members, he states a stark consequence that accompanies good news: finding and following the will of God in Jesus makes us part of a new family that goes deeper (and wider) than blood.
This comes, however, at the expense of one of the harshest words of Jesus about family life found in the New Testament:
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.”
American biblical scholar, John J. Pilch commented that in Jesus’ time, the main rule of behavior is: family first! A disciple who deliberately cuts ties with family and social network will lose the ordinary means of making a living. This is the “economic cross” the disciple has chosen to carry.
No longer able to make claims to a livelihood based on blood ties and advantageous social network, a disciple have to rely on “hospitality,” which in the Middle East is extended exclusively by strangers to strangers (see Lk 9:4-5; 10:3-12). This risk-filled option is quite a cross to carry.
By joining a new, fictive family consisting of other disciples of Jesus, however, a “family-hating” person presumably has a new source of livelihood. Nevertheless, a disciple who has accepted these challenging exhortations will effectively have given up everything. Therefore, a would-be disciple must seriously calculate the costs.
Two brief parables (about construction and waging war) drive this point home. Anyone who weakens and abandons this determination will become the butt of ridicule and shame. A disciple must remain firmly committed.
Jesus teaches us today that discipleship requires both renunciation and calculation. Those who wish to follow him must renounce everyone and everything that gets in the way of a single-minded response to Jesus’ invitation to be his disciple. At the same time, disciples are not naively to follow Jesus. They must calculate and consent to the cost—the price is giving their all, even their own life. What the One who calls gives disciples in return, however, is beyond calculation—fullness of new Life
Christian freedom is one of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith. True freedom means willingly becoming a slave to Christ, which happens through an ever growing relationship with Him (Colossians 2:16–17).
To follow Jesus of taking up of one’s cross is a sheer act of freedom. Following Jesus is liberating. It frees us from all attachments, prejudices, possessions and barriers to experiencing the redeeming grace of the cross. At the cost of leaving behind our own family and our own small lives, however, we gain a hundredfold of families and we become fully human and fully alive.