We have just completed a less-than-easy journey through epistles that have Paul offering up guidance to Timothy and Titus that when viewed in the light of today's mores are quite reprehensible. Women submitting in church, and in the household, binding themselves to a lesser place and being relegated into silence on the fringes, rather than to inclusion in the councils of leadership is a bond that has been breaking in our society for decades now. Though true liberation for women is still on its way, remarkable progress has been made.
The same can be said of the continuing work to abolish the human institution of enslaving our neighbors, those we deem "less" who cease to be fellow humans and thus become property. Even though we have marked 150 years here in the United States since President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, we still grapple with slavery. All around the world, and even in our own country to this day, people are bound, indentured and kept as chattel.
We can recognize just how "wrong" Paul is in the letters to Timothy and Titus. We can bridle against the images promulgated that seem to illustrate a Church wherein the subjugation of any human is seen as appropriate...certainly we would like to think of ourselves as more advanced? If we do, then we indulge in the root assumptions of self-justification that Isaiah continues to rail against. Because we struggle with altering our habits, our ways of being that lead to iniquity and foster injustice, we keep getting caught up in the temptation to observe people "out there" or "in scripture" that are less-than-righteous as "other" when in reality "they is us."
It takes a lot to knock us out of our perch in that tree. If we are going to see the world as God sees it, and ourselves as God sees us, then we face some tough transformations. Not only to we have to come to terms that the old, assuring ways are not sufficient or salutary to life in God (see a post I offered on that here Continuity and Change), we also have to be willing to live into that transformed life (another post on that concept is here The Way closing...).
In today's readings, the people of Israel and the nations are being given a road map to transformation of life from God. Don't just pay lip service to justice, and don't just play at being righteous says God...get up and be the people you were created to be, act the way you were called to act. Seize on justice, not just "out there" but also behind the closed doors of your societies, your households, your personal lives.
Philemon gets that invitation today. Right out there, in front of God, the Church and everybody his escaped slave, Onesimus, comes back to him bearing a letter from the Apostle that reminds him of his new life in Christ-a new life that he now shares with Onesimus. The slave is being reintroduced in community as a brother in Christ. Here is what Paul is saying in Philemon: There is no place for slavery in the Kingdom of God.
And how long has it taken us in this world to learn that truth?
That is a LOT of change for Philemon, for Onesimus and EVERYONE ELSE who reads that letter. Though it is the shortest book in the Bible, in many was it is also one of the most chalenging. Why? Because it hits us right at the place where we are reluctant to welcome God and other people into our lives. That squirrely, awkward, anxious and worrisome intersection between our inner selves (not so pretty) and the outer world (where things get DEALT with).
In Isaiah, and in Philemon...the question continues to abide: We have all this life from God; so, what are we going to do with it?