Last week at our Good Book Club session we had some deep discussion, as we often do. We’ve been looking at the Epistles, the letters in the New Testament from early Christian leaders. We decided on Wednesday to focus on one particular book – the entire book – which sounds impressive until you know that it was the letter to Philemon, which is only 25 verses long…
It is a fascinating little gem of a book though, a very personal letter from St Paul to Philemon, the leader of a small church somewhere, who’d become a Christian through Paul’s preaching. Paul has a dilemma. One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had run away from his master and taken refuge with Paul, who is in prison, probably under house arrest in Rome. While he was with Paul Onesimus too had become a Christian, but what is going to happen to him now?
Onesimus was very vulnerable. He couldn’t stay with Paul indefinitely – it was illegal for a Roman citizen like Paul to harbour a fugitive slave, and he was under arrest himself anyway. But if Paul sends him back, Philemon has the right to punish him, even to put him to death, and he may be under pressure to do so from his society. Slavery was deeply ingrained and went unquestioned in the ancient world, and despite Paul’s teaching that the Christian community should be egalitarian – neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male and female - old habits die hard. Neither Paul, nor Onesimus, could be sure that Philemon would be merciful.
So Paul wrote a tough letter, using every means he could – subtle and not so subtle - to persuade Philemon not only to take Onesimus back, but to treat him as a brother in Christ, not as a slave.
And that is where our discussion got quite energetic at Good Book Club, because we wondered about how Philemon would have taken Paul’s hard words. “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love…” Who did Paul think he was, to interfere in his life like this – to behave as if he had the right to command Philemon to do something, even if he hoped he wouldn’t have to? We wondered whether Philemon might have felt like just ripping the letter up?
The fact that we still have the letter hints that Philemon did as Paul asked, but we could appreciate how difficult it might have been at first to read this letter. No one likes to be criticised, even if, deep down we know the criticism is justified. Our defences go up, our hackles rise. We instantly think of all sorts of reasons why the person challenging us is wrong. We stick our fingers in our ears, or we bite back.
That discussion came to mind when I looked at today’s readings, because there are more hard words in them too. The Old Testament prophet Amos thunders at the people of Israel in the first reading. They are “turning justice to wormwood “and “trampling on the poor”. They think they’ll get away with it, but they’re wrong. God will “break out against the house of Joseph like fire” It’s not exactly a feel-good message, and they don’t seem to have taken a blind bit of notice. Eventually the Assyrians obliterated their nation, weakened by injustice and inequality, just as Amos had warned, but I doubt anyone thanked him for his warning.
There are more hard words in the Gospel reading, and someone else who doesn’t want to hear what he needs to hear. The man who comes to Jesus is sincere in his faith, sincere in wanting to live right. Like Philemon, his heart is in the right place, but like Philemon he is wealthy, and that will be his downfall. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks Jesus, as if eternal life were just one more possession to add to those he already has - the ultimate gift for the man who has everything. He’s wrong, though. Eternal life isn’t a ticket to heaven when we die; it is something that grows in us as we live in the way God calls us to now. If we live justly, lovingly and generously, our lives will gradually become heaven-shaped, shot through with the justice, love and generosity of God. That’s what eternal life is all about. But this man’s possessions are getting in the way of him living like that. His hands are so full of them, that he can’t take hold of the life God wants to give him now. He goes away grieving. He knows that what Jesus is saying is right, but he can’t bear to let these words into his heart. They will cost him more than he wants to pay.
It’s quite possible that many of us, by now, are starting to feel a bit uncomfortable, because maybe we’re more like this man than we’d like to admit. We may not always feel rich by comparison to our peers, but we are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of many in the world. We tend to struggle with the clutter we accumulate while they struggle for even the basics of existence. Could Jesus’ words be directed at us too? Is he calling us to give away our possessions too? We are probably hoping rather desperately at this point that he isn’t.
Over the years I’ve heard many opinions about this passage and often they’ve included some elaborate attempts to prove that it isn’t really saying what it sounds like it’s saying. We want to find a loophole to excuse us from its demands. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” says Jesus. There’s a “loophole” explanation of that which says that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle” which was too small for camels to enter unless their cargoes were unloaded first. Bingo! Camels can get through eyes of needles after all, so maybe riches aren’t always as much of an obstacle after all. We just need to do some rearrangement. Unfortunately it is bunkum. There’s no historical or archaeological evidence for such a gate; but isn’t it telling that we’d like there to be.
Another “loophole” interpretation points out that Jesus didn’t call everyone to this way of absolute poverty. His fishermen disciples didn’t actually sell their boats – we find them going fishing from time to time. Martha and Mary had a home to offer Jesus when he needed it, and food for him and his disciples, and his mission was bankrolled by wealthy supporters. Phew! we think. That’s a relief. If he didn’t call everyone to be poor, we’re off the hook!
But if we find ourselves looking for loopholes and relieved when we think we’ve found them, we’ve probably missed the point. Our reluctance even to consider giving up our possessions tells us that we are probably more attached to them than we should be, and that they mean more to us than they should. Material things aren’t intrinsically wrong; God made a material world full of riches and called all of it good. We need food to eat and clothes to wear. But if our possessions are starting to possess us, if we look to them to give us a sense of status and worth, we have a problem.
Jesus’ words feel challenging because we need to be challenged. Challenge can be painful. As our second reading put it, “The word of God is …sharper than any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow”. Ouch! “Before God,” it goes on,” no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Ouch again!
Sometimes we need radical surgery – that two edged sword – but if we can’t even bear to hear God saying that, nothing will ever change in us. So how can we find the courage to keep listening to God even when it feels difficult? What do we need to enable us to do that?
Today’s Bible readings tell us that the key lies in relationship. Let’s go back to Philemon. Deep down Philemon knew that Paul loved him. That’s what made it possible for him to trust what he said, even if it was tough.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews points us to an even deeper relationship – the relationship we have with God through Christ. In Christ God has been where we are; he knows what it feels like to be us. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness” says the letter. However terrifying it might feel when we know something is wrong, ultimately God’s presence is the safest place for us to be, the place where we “receive mercy, and find grace to help in times of need.”
If our ears are open to God’s voice, there will be times when he challenges us with tough words that we’d rather not hear. They may come from the depth of our consciences. They may come through people we trust. They may come in the stillness of prayer. They may come in our worship and Bible reading. They might even come from the pulpit from time to time! We need to weigh them that touch a nerve, of course. Are they really God’s words or not? One simple test is that God’s words aren’t just sharp, they are also living, according to Hebrews. They bring life rather than destroying it.
But we often know all too well that we are doing something we shouldn’t, or not doing something we should – we just can’t bear to acknowledge it. Like that rich man, it will cost us more than we want to pay.
Today’s readings tell us that it is our relationship with God that is the key to helping us through that reluctance. Do we believe that God “looks at us and loves us” as Jesus did to that rich young man, or not? And if not, why not? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves, the place we need to start if we want to let go of the junk that clutters our lives – material, emotional or spiritual - and let the kingdom of God take root in us. Let’s not “go away grieving” today, but come to God, in whose hands we are safe forever.