Each Person is a Brother/Sister
Sep 9, 2019
In the second reading this weekend St. Paul is writing a letter to Philemon. This is one of the shortest books in the bible, comprising a single page, yet in some ways it is one of the more interesting. Philemon owns a slave named Onesimus who has run away and somehow gets attached to Paul. Now Paul, respecting the reality of the state of slavery that is supported in the Roman times, is sending Onesimus back to his owner. But his appeal to Philemon gives witness to the power of Christianity as it addresses the institution of slavery. Paul recognizes that Onesimus belongs to Philemon, yet he claims first that the runaway slave is a son to him and that he is sending him as his own heart. As Paul raises the dignity of Onesimus by saying: “ Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, 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.”
In the modern age we too easily get caught up in the idea that we need to change harmful institutions by government action. That does have its uses but ultimately the effects of those harmful institutions continue to linger long after the institution has been defeated. A classic case of this is the emancipation declaration ending the enslavement of people of color during the Civil War. One hundred years have passed and we still see the effects of discrimination placed upon people. Paul’s approach was drastically different in that he raised up individuals and gave them dignity (which I hope is the same action the Church continues to do in the modern age). As each person is made a brother/sister the harmful institution is weakened by that act of love. This is a much more powerful act of intervention that affects the individual than any government sponsored program could achieve.