Our second reading this Sunday is from St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Paul writes on behalf of Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who fled from Philemon’s household for reasons unknown to us. Paul begs Philemon to receive Onesimus back into his home, but in a new way. Philemon is to “welcome him as you would me,” says Paul, “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a brother, beloved…as a man and in the Lord.”
This is a revolutionary request for their time. Paul is asking Philemon to overturn the cultural practice of slavery—to treat Onesimus as a person, as equal in the sight of God. Paul took a great risk in asking this, as Philemon was legally allowed to punish Onesimus for his disobedience and escape. Paul relied on Philemon’s conversion of heart to the Christian ideal that all believers are brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. We have reason to believe that Philemon honored Paul’s request, and even allowed Onesimus freedom to promote the Christian faith instead of returning him to the conditions of slavery.
Onesimus’ transition from slavery to freedom in faith serves as a type for every Christian’s journey from slavery in sin into freedom in Christ Jesus. The prayers and earthly intercession of the Christian community provide us with the support we need to make such a great change in our lives. Those who love us offer their gifts so that we might share in their freedom and joy; we in turn offer our gifts and continue the spread of the Gospel. Pope Benedict refers to this process of societal change through personal growth in his Encyclical Letter, Spe Salvi (In hope we are saved):
“Those who…are members of the one Church have become brothers and sisters—this is how Christians addressed one another. By virtue of their Baptism they had been reborn, they had been given to drink of the same Spirit and they received the Body of the Lord together, alongside one another. Even if external structures remained unaltered, this changed society from within…they belong to a new society which is the goal of their common pilgrimage and which is anticipated in the course of that pilgrimage.” (Spe Salvi 4)
May we, who profess faith in Christ Jesus, always recognize and honor the dignity of each human person as the gifts they are in Christ Jesus, living in freedom from slavery to sin or possessions. May we be good stewards of each other, building up the Kingdom of God in word and in deed.