The second reading at Mass on Sunday, the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, comes from the most immediately personal of Paul’s Letters – the letter to Philemon.
The occasion for the letter was Paul’s return to Philemon of Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave who has now become a Christian.
From the 21st Century perspective the situation is a moral quagmire. But for Paul it is especially a matter of love and faith – see Onesimus as a brother in the Lord and receive him as such.
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.
We may not always be able to change laws, or want to, but we can always be loving.
Display in Memorial to Abolition of Slavery, Nantes. (c) 2016, Allen Morris.
‘If, as the colonies say, the Antilles cannot be cultivated without slaves, the Antilles must be given up. To reason for slavery to preserve the colonies is the politics of brigands. A criminal act cannot be a necessary one. Let the colonies perish rather than the principle.’ Victor Schoelcher, 1842.