By Martin Jumbam
The Universal Church celebrates Sunday, September 08, 2013 as the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year C. In the entrance antiphon we pray: “Lord, you are just, and the judgements you make are right. Show mercy when you judge me, your servant."
In the first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, the wise man says that wisdom can only be obtained from God. Even though it is not easy to understand God’s plans, the wisdom we receive from him always helps us to discover what he wants from us. It also enables us to grasp our limitations. We must therefore pray to him for wisdom in whatever we do for he is always willing and ready to grant the wishes of whoever runs to him, as he did to Solomon, the wise king. In the second reading, from the Letter to Philemon, Saint Paul approaches the question of slavery. Without condemning a social structure he could not change, he wants to abolish slavery by changing men’s hearts and winning them over to Christ. In this way, there would no longer be slaves or freemen, but rather all would be one in Christ Jesus, the Lord. So we have to welcome one another in Christ, Jesus. In the Gospel, Saint Luke shows us Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, telling his disciples what it takes to be his follower. He calls for total detachment from all earthly possessions and surrender of all human ties and even life itself. Christ’s demand is radical for he calls on us to renounce all that is most precious to us, take our cross and follow him. We can only follow him when we invest our time and resources wisely in projects he approves of, especially in acts of charity and love for the poor and the marginalized in our society. Let us therefore pray in the course of this holy Mass for the courage to carry our individual crosses behind our Lord no matter the problems we may face on the way.
First Reading: Book of Wisdom 9:13-18
What man can know the intentions of God? Who can divine the will of the Lord? The reasonings of mortals are unsure and our intentions unstable; for a perishable body presses down the soul, and this tent of clay weighs down the teeming mind. It is hard enough for us to work out what is on earth, laborious to know what lies within our reach; who, then, can discover what is in the heavens? As for your intention, who could have learnt it, had you not granted Wisdom and sent your holy spirit from above? Thus have the paths of those on earth been straightened and men been taught what pleases you, and saved, by wisdom.
V/ The word of the Lord.
R/ Thanks be to God.
Before we look at the passage of our meditation, let us take a quick look at the history behind the Book of Wisdom. It was originally written in Greek and so does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Martin Luther and other Protestant Reformers of the 16th century followed the Jewish practice and excluded the Book of Wisdom from their own Bible, under the pretext that it was not divinely inspired. But the Latin Church, at the Council of Trent (1546), included it in its list of sacred canonical books, which the first Vatican Council endorsed in 1870. Even though the book does not mention King Solomon, it is usually attributed to him on account of his reputation for wisdom.
Historically, the Book of Wisdom is probably the last book of the Old Testament, being written only a few decades before the birth of Christ. It was originally written in the Greek spoken in the cities of Lower Egypt after the conquest of that zone by Alexander the Great in the last third of the 4th century BC.
The authors of The African Bible tell us that the Greek culture at the time of this book was so attractive that many Jews were beginning to abandon Jewish culture in favour of the Greek. So the author’s main purpose is to warn the Jews that their culture has nothing to envy from the dominant Greek culture. He has a clear religious goal in mind, that is, to set wisdom in the context of the profound faith in the God of Israel, the one and only God. His faith leads him not only to praise wisdom as a virtue but to go beyond that and depict wisdom as a divine attribute. Moreover, he puts forward a religious interpretation of history as being the history of salvation and provides a clear overview of the history of the chosen people and of their dealings with other peoples. With this, he calls on the Jewish people to be proud of their culture that is divinely inspired.
In the passage of our meditation, the wise man tells us that it is thanks to wisdom that we are saved for through it, we learn to understand God’s ways and plans for us. Left to ourselves we cannot attain wisdom because our reasoning is very limited. We therefore need the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the advocate from the Father sent to us through the intercession of Jesus Christ, the Son. Let us therefore pray to the Holy Spirit to continue to inspire us and fill us with wisdom so we can understand the plans the Lord has for us. We make our prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Second Reading: Philemon 9:10 & 12-17
This is Paul writing, an old man now and, what is more, still a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for a child of mine, whose father I became while wearing these chains: I mean Onesimus. I am sending him back to you, and with him – I could say – a part of my own self. I should have liked to keep him with me; he could have been a substitute for you, to help me while I am in the chains that the Good News has brought me. However, I did not want to do anything without your consent; it would have been forcing your act of kindness, which should be spontaneous. I know you have been deprived of Onesimus for a time, but it was only so that you could have him back for ever, not as a slave any more, but something much better than a slave, a dear brother; especially dear to me, but how much more to you, as a blood-brother as well as a brother in the Lord. So if all that we have in common means anything to you, welcome him as you would me.
V/ The word of the Lord.
R/ Thanks be to God.
Church historians tell us that Philemon was a well-to-do citizen of the city of Colossae whom Saint Paul is thought to have converted to Christianity, very probably during his three-year stay in Ephesus. Saint Paul never visited Colossae (Acts 19:10; 20: 31), nor did he found the Church in that city, credit for the evangelization of that city going to his deputy, Epaphras (Col 1: 6-7).
One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had fled from his master and reached Paul who was in prison in Rome. Paul converted him to Christianity and, instead of keeping him as he had initially intended to, he decided to send him back to his master. One of Paul’s assistants, Tychicus was about to leave for Colossae, bearing Paul’s letter to the church of that city and so Paul used that opportunity to have Onesimus travel with him (Col 4: 7-9). And so both letters, Colossians and Philemon, were written at the same time.
The Letter to Philemon is the shortest of Saint Paul’s undisputed letters. His aim is simple: intercede for Onesimus so that his master can receive him back with no retribution. He says that Onesimus has been very useful to him, Paul, and will equally be even more useful to Philemon now that he has become a Christian and, as such, a brother, no longer a slave.
Although Paul does not explicitly condemn slavery, which was a worldwide practice on which the economy of the entire Roman Empire depended, he uses the example of a run-away slave, Onesimus, to teach us that in Christ social status is not important. We are no longer slaves or freemen but rather brothers and sisters in the Lord.
How does this reading apply to us as Christians living in the city of Douala today? I once heard the late Jesuit priest, Father Eric de Rosny speak on this Letter to Philemon with an example of an incident that he witnessed at the home of one of his former students, who had invited the priest to his home for dinner. Father Eric said that no sooner had he arrived than he noticed a sad-looking young girl, not much bigger than the children of his host family, who was cleaning the house, cooking and bathing the younger ones. When he inquired to know who she was, the lady of the house dismissively told him she was her house girl from Bamenda.
Father Eric said he was so upset with what he saw and the way the young girl was being treated at that home that he openly expressed his disapproval and left without eating. On his way out, he asked his hosts to follow Saint Paul’s example and free that young girl, who was their own "Onesimus". Many of us, brothers and sisters, are keeping our own “Onesimus’s” under lock and key at our homes under the pretext that they are only ‘house girls’ and ‘houseboys’, children from poor villages around the country, particularly from Bamenda. Saint Paul challenges us, in this reading, to free them or, at least, to treat them with love because we are all brothers and sisters, and in Christ there is no longer any Jew or Gentile. Amen.
Gospel: Luke 14: 25-35.
Great crowds accompanied Jesus on his way and he turned and spoke to them. ‘If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple. Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. And indeed, which of you here intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? Otherwise, if he had laid the foundation and then found himself unable to finish the work, the onlookers would all start making fun of him and saying, "Here is a man who started to build and was unable to finish." Or again, what king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who advanced against him with twenty thousand? If not, then while the other king was still a long way off, he would send envoys to sue for peace. So in the same way, none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.’
V/ The Gospel of the Lord.
R/ Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
Last Sunday, we heard Jesus, a guest at the home of a Pharisee, warning against the incessant scramble for places of honour because those who exalt themselves shall be humbled. Today, he resumes his journey to Jerusalem and his teaching is becoming more and more radical as he goes towards his death. He calls on his followers to deny themselves, renounce all that is dear to them, even family, if they want to follow him. No doubt, many of his disciples find his teaching intolerable and abandon him (Jn 6: 60). Following him is the way of the cross, he tells his disciples. “None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possession" (Lk 14: 33).
Following Christ is not for a period of time. It is a life-long commitment that calls for lots of sacrifices. There is no part-time Christian. We can, however, not carry our cross behind Christ alone; we need a helper: the Holy Spirit. He enables us to understand God’s designs for us and helps us renounce all that imprisons us to a life of sin so that when we put our hand to the plough we can no longer look back.
The two parables Jesus gives of the builder, who needs to put his resources together before undertaking a building project, and the king, who needs to take stock of his military resources before going to war, give us notice that we have to work out for ourselves the demands of being his disciples. We must not live in a world of fantasy and illusions but rather in a world of reality.
Jesus warns against rushing headlong into instant commitment while ignoring the cost of our actions and our abilities to accomplish whatever we set out to do. We spend a good part of our lives figuring out what is within our reach and what is not; what we can realistically achieve and what is beyond our control. That is why Christ calls on us to first sit down and consider our possibilities before engaging ourselves in any adventure.
As Christians, the supreme undertaking to which Christ calls us is that of following him faithfully in the midst of our daily activities. To do this well, we must sit down and consider what means we have and how to use them in the service of the Lord. We have to know what we lack in order to ask the Lord for it with confidence. We do this through the examination of conscience, especially at the end of the day when we take stock of our day and ask ourselves, as Saint Ignatius of Loyola advises, what we did for Christ, what we are doing for Christ and what we ought to be doing for Christ.
The examination of conscience enables us to know the truth about our own life. As Saint John of the Cross puts it: “Knowledge of self is the first step the soul must take in order to arrive at the knowledge of God” (Spiritual Canticle, 4, 1). It is a dialogue between the soul and God. In it, we take a look at the end of the day at how well we used the resources God has given us in his honour.
To construct the tower Christ expects of us and conquer the sins that imprison us, which is equivalent to going to war against a more powerful enemy, we must first sit down and take stock of the resources of grace Christ has put at our disposal. This is not always easy as the Devil is always lurking around to mislead us and make us give more attention to the material goods of life, instead of the spiritual ones. To know ourselves well, we pray for the grace of humility without which we remain stuck in the darkness of our sins. Humility leads us to the profound awareness that we are sinners in dire need of God’s mercy.
When we hear the demands required to follow Christ, we too are tempted, like his disciples of old, to wonder who then can be saved (Lk 18:26). But Jesus leads us on the road to salvation. With him everything is possible. He wants us to be in the world but not of the world (Jn 15:19) so that we can be free to carry on his mission, which is a mission of love of God and love of our neighbour.
Let us pray for the courage to undertake an examination of conscience at the end of each day so we can see how well we have used the resources Christ has given us in his honour. Where we have fallen short of his expectations, let us pray for forgiveness and for strength to do better tomorrow. As the Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI urges us, let us keep our gaze permanently fixed on Christ, our Saviour, as we journey with him to Jerusalem and to his supreme sacrifice on the Cross of Calvary. There is no other name by which we can be saved. Amen.