Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time, September 8, 2019
Jews in cosmopolitan Alexandria were assimilating into the dominant pagan culture. A faithful sage uses the pagan style of argument but gives them reasons to keep their ancestral religion.
Saint Paul had a friend named Philemon. Paul met his friend's runaway slave in prison, and there instructed and baptized him. Paul sent this note to his friend with the returned slave.
An important theme in Saint Luke's gospel is how to be a disciple, and what that costs. In Luke's literary plan, Jesus says these words while on his way to Jerusalem, where he expects to be crucified.
The Historical Background--the Place: The book of Wisdom originated in the cosmopolitan city Alexandria, in Egypt. Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E., Alexandria was the capital of the Ptolemies during their reign over Egypt, home of two famous libraries containing 700,000 scrolls, and site of a great university. The New Columbia Encyclopedia calls the city "the greatest center of Hellenistic [Greek] and Jewish culture." This is where seventy Jewish scholars translated their scriptures into Greek, producing what came to be called the Septuagint [from the Greek word for "seventy"] version of the Old Testament.
The Historical Background--the People: About a century before the birth of Jesus, a learned and faithful Jew assessed the situation for Jews in this great city. Many Jews had "assimilated" into the dominant pagan culture. They and native pagans sometimes ridiculed practicing Jews, so our sage wrote a book of Wisdom, to bolster the faith of his friends. (The Church cites this book often in the Lectionary, so this introduction may be familiar to users of Lector's Notes.) Today's passage could have originated in a coffee house on the edge of a modern university campus, for it's all about deep theological issues like the ability of the human mind to grasp the ways of God, and how the body and soul interact.
The Lector's Proclamation: To proclaim this properly in your Sunday assembly, plan how you'll contrast, with your tone of voice and carefully timed pauses,
|the utterly wise counsels of God||versus||feeble human wisdom.|
This is especially important (and tricky) in the sentence with these opposing clauses:
|And scarce do we guess the things on earth,
and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty,
|but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?|
The last sentence actually addresses God. It means "Who could know your ways, God, unless you had already given that person your wisdom and your spirit?"
The Very Personal Historical Background: Philemon was a friend of Saint Paul's who had had a runaway slave named Onesimus. (The pronunciations are "Fi LEE mun" with a long i in the first syllable, and "Oh NAY see mus.") The Apostle and the fugitive had met in prison, where Paul instructed and baptized Onesimus ("whose father I have become in my imprisonment"). Paul wrote a note to be brought by the slave on his return to Philemon, and today's Lectionary passage is the gist of that note.
A Theological Reflection: We may be disappointed that Paul did not condemn the institution of slavery outright. But that shouldn't blind us to the revolutionary idea that Paul does insist upon: that the slave-owner must regard Onesimus differently now, as a brother in Christ and so much a mutual friend that Philemon must welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul.
The Lector's Proclamation: This message is very personal, but in written form, compounded by translation, it has become very formal. The best way to prepare might be to imagine Paul speaking with Philemon face-to-face. His phrasing would be short and conversational, with pauses as he thought spontaneously about how to make his case.
Notice the different kinds of sentences. There's flattery here ("I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.") and something we moderns would call manipulation ("So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me."). There's speculation ("Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, ..."). We might label some of this self-aggrandizement, although for a worthy purpose ("I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus."). And there's the enduring theological lesson that makes this passage important to us two millennia later: Philemon is to regard Onesimus, and we are to regard one other, "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."
Each of those sentences calls for its own tone of voice, its own pace, its own inflection. I leave it to the reader to finish the analysis of the various types of statements. But however you parse it out, this deserves more than a monotone.
Artistic Rendering of the Library of Alexandria, based on some archaeological evidence. Image said by Wikipedia to be from the 19th century, in the public doman, and retrieved from: O. Von Corven - Tolzmann, Don Heinrich, Alfred Hessel and Reuben Peiss. The Memory of Mankind. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2001
This page updated July 15, 2019