Breath of the Spirit: At What Cost?
Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” And yet today’s gospel describes discipleship in ways that seem neither. Our reflection today invites us to hear Jesus’s shocking phrases through a different lens: as a call to rid ourselves of our attachments; to free ourselves from the burdens of our bigotries and angers. Luke’s Jesus lets us know that this transformation will not be easy. It will cost us. The easy part comes after, when we get to move in the world less encumbered by the weight of our own baggage.
September 4, 2022: Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
At What Cost?
A reflection by Richard Young
The first part of our gospel reading is painful to hear. Turning your back on all your loved ones and even your very self? Most translations don’t say “turning your back;” it’s even worse. They say “hating.” To be a follower of Jesus, you have to hate? That can’t be right! Well, of course, it’s not. Jesus does not condone hating. What we have in the reading is a mixture of hyperbole and idiom. We all know that hyperbole, exaggeration, was a common teaching tool used by preachers and teachers of Jesus’ day. And scholars tell us that the passage contains an attempt by Luke to shock us by using an old Hebrew idiom in his Greek writing. An idiom, as most of you probably already know, is an expression the meaning of which is not readily apparent on its surface. If a visitor from another planet heard me tell an actor, “Break a leg,” which, of course, means “good luck,” the visitor would wonder why I’m wishing bodily harm to another person. Luke’s Jesus is just exaggerating by use of an idiom that went from Hebrew to Greek and finally to English. It’s a challenge to listen to late first century readings with twenty-first century ears.
Matthew’s version of this saying says nothing about hate, and it is a BIT easier to hear: “Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who prefers son or daughter to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who does not take up the cross and follow in my footsteps is not worthy of me.” The clear message, stripped of idiom and exaggeration, is this: being a disciple takes utmost dedication, and one would be wise to calculate the cost before deciding to try. The gospel today could easily be called “what’s the cost?” What’s it going to cost me to build that tower? What’s the price I have to pay to make peace with that huge army marching toward me?
For years, I had a framed poster in my office, when I worked in public mental health. It contains these words from a famous churchman: “Happy are those who dream dreams and are ready to pay the price to make them come true.” An appropriate place for such a sentiment, because many who came to me for counseling dreamed of changing but did not consider the cost. I would ask, “How do you want to be different?” Some would answer that they want to be more self-confident, more assertive, less inclined to lose their temper, less depressed or anxious. I would ask, “What’s that going to cost you? If you change, is it possible that friends and co-workers and family won’t like it? Could it be that they have gotten used to thinking of you as a bitter, stressed-out, non-assertive wimp whom they can easily manipulate? Maybe they like you this way.” I might add, “Change will cost you. You will need to let go of so much crap. Can you handle all that detachment?” You might say that Luke’s Jesus was asking the same thing: can you handle being ridiculed and hated and thrown out of the synagogue?
Years ago, an old friend named Patrick made a huge change in his life. He stopped drinking. It was a monumental struggle, but he got there, and he wore the label “recovering alcoholic” as if it were the Congressional Medal of Honor. He freely shared with anyone who would listen the story of his BEFORE and AFTER – his wild drinking days with all the incredibly dangerous and foolish things he did contrasted with the blessings that sobriety brought him. He was WAY better off than ever before, but the cost of getting there was steep. His dad and brothers and his friends were embarrassed. They wished he would just shut up about the whole matter. They felt threatened by all this talk about Alcoholics Anonymous. They began to think, “Patrick CAN’T be an alcoholic. If he’s one, then so am I, and I can’t accept that.” Little by little, Patrick began to lose his old friends and had less contact with his family. Although he could see that coming, it hurt. But he weighed that cross before deciding to carry it. He had to learn to trust that God would be there for him through it all. To be a follower, a disciple of the Christ who called him to sobriety, and to deep honesty with himself, there was a cost. Patrick had to let go of his unhealthy attachments to those who failed to support him. He still loves them. He prays for them. He won’t turn his back on them, but he knows he must keep his distance from anything that could threaten his sobriety.
A story like that sounds like a good way to end this reflection. But I want to turn to our second reading for today, because this theme of “what’s the cost” is found in there as well.
This Sunday, September 4, is the only day in our three-year cycle of Sunday readings that we hear something from Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is the shortest “book” in the Bible. It takes up only one page. Congregations, I believe, should have their lectors read the whole letter, not just the passage in the lectionary. It’s just too precious to do otherwise.
Paul is writing to Philemon, a friend who is a prominent Christian and obviously well off. This is a private letter, and Paul surely did not expect it to be made public, let alone become part of Christian Scripture. He would probably have been embarrassed had he lived to see that. Paul has a big favor to ask, and in the first part of the letter, he is “buttering up” his friend (another idiom) to manipulate him into agreeing to do the right thing. “I hear about your love and faith … your love has given me great joy and encouragement … you have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.” He’s really laying it on thick! He acknowledges that he could just demand that Philemon to do what he asks. After all, Paul says, “you owe me your very self.” But it’s so much better to do the right thing “voluntarily” and “out of love.” Paul reminds him he’s just an old man in prison for Christ, as if to say, “Please… make an old man happy!”
Now, he gets to “the big ask.” He has a run-away slave with him named Onesimus, a name that means “useful.” He engages in a play on words, noting how useful Onesimus has been to him during his days in the slammer. But the slave belongs to Philemon, and although Paul would like to keep Onesimus, he knows it’s only right to return him. He wants Philemon to accept him back without any punishment for running away, because Onesimus is their “brother in the Lord.” The implication is that Paul has baptized Onesimus, making him a Christian – more than a slave, but a dear brother who is now even dearer, because Philemon will have him forever as a brother in Christ. Paul has “stacked the deck” (another idiom) such that Philemon hardly has a choice. How could he say no? Since Onesimus now has the same status as Paul, Philemon has to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul.
There’s a promise to visit after his release from prison and a little more buttering up before the end of the letter: since you’re such a good person, Philemon, I know “you will do even more than I ask.” What a big-time manipulator!
Now, I summarize the letter with the hope of shedding some light on the theme of “what’s the cost?” Each of the three characters in the story has some detaching to do – a price to pay to live authentically as a disciple of Christ.
Paul, in his intense zeal for Christ pays the price of imprisonment, but there’s more. He has had the help of the slave Onesimus, whom he has come to love. He has a deep affection for Onesimus. Letting go of him would be hard. He says Onesimus is like a son to him. He tells Philemon, “I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you.” So, this whole business of doing the right thing is very costly to Paul emotionally.
Onesimus the slave who was baptized and learned about Christ from Paul, has a price to pay as well. In spite of Paul’s persuasive letter, there is no guarantee that Philemon will take Onesimus back with the love and brotherhood that Paul wants. The slave has to take a chance. That’s a price he must pay. He has to put aside his perceived freedom as a runaway for a chance at a greater freedom in Christ. He had a good thing going, helping this nice old man, Paul. Now he must give that up, face his fears, and go back to Philemon. That’s a great act of faith.
The whole matter had been costly to Philemon, too. He took a financial hit, when his slave ran away. Now he is being asked to make that loss permanent by accepting Onesimus as a brother in Christ. He had to learn that in spite of the economics of the transaction, he comes out ahead. That’s an act of faith, too. The price of his Christianity was in learning that in Christ, ALL are one. There is no slave or free, no Jew or Greek, no male or female. The cost is in accepting that the whole system of power and wealth that Philemon had been living by (and by which we still live today) is a scam. It does not even remotely resemble God’s reign, as Jesus taught. If Philemon wanted to truly live by the radical equality and love that Jesus practiced, he had to make some BIG changes. The last line of today’s gospel passage reads, “So count the cost. You can’t be my disciple, if you don’t say goodbye to all your possessions.” Philemon must say goodbye to treating Onesimus as a possession, and hello to seeing him as an equal: a brother in Christ.
Discipleship and detachment, they ain’t cheap.
For your discipleship, what costs have you had to count?
Rev. Richard P. Young is a retired Catholic priest and mental health counselor. He chairs the Liturgy Committee of Dignity/Dayton’s Living Beatitudes Community and has worked with several Dignity Chapters since the late 70s.
He once served for a term on the national board of DignityUSA and has attended all the national conventions/conferences since 1981. He is married to former DignityUSA’s national secretary, Bob Butts. Richard was honored with a President’s Award at the 2022 Dignity National Conference in San Diego.