The readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time are humanity’s cry for godly help. Prominent evangelical minister Billy Graham once said, “The Bible is as fresh as the morning newspaper. The only thing different is the name of the sinners.”
The selection from the Book of Wisdom is trying to grapple with the mystery of humanity’s relationship with the Creator. “For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans.” The sin of Adam has caused us mortals to grope in darkness, seeking the wisdom of God. “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?”
Hope comes to us through the inspired word of God. “Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.”
In the second reading, Paul is aware of how deeply sin is embedded in society. Onesimus was a runaway slave that Paul befriended. He knows that Onesimus belongs to Philemon. Onesimus has become a Christian, and now Paul considers him a brother. He asks the former slaveholder, Philemon, to take him back as a brother. Paul appeals to Philemon as a Christian to treat Onesimus as all Christians wish to be treated.
The sin of slavery is deeply embedded in our history.
It was first introduced into our country in 1619 when a Dutch ship brought 20 African slaves ashore in Jamestown, Va. However, if the sin of slavery had not already been in our hearts, this sinful institution wouldn’t have flourished.
True, we fought a Civil War that was to end slavery. We have given more lives for the cause of freedom from slavery than we have to any other cause. However, the problem of slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Abraham Lincoln knew the depth of human sin involved in slavery when he said, “The North is praying that God is on their side; the South is praying that God is on their side. I am simply praying that I am on God’s side.”
For many of us the sin of racism is buried deep within our consciousness. In 1960, a seminarian classmate had a father, whom we will call “Joe,” who belonged to a prestigious country club. Joe had an African-American friend whom we shall name “Tom.” Joe took his friend Tom to apply for membership but was told, “African Americans need not apply.” Joe responded by saying: “If my friend is not good enough, neither am I. I withdraw my membership.”
This was not an isolated case. In that same year I had a seminarian classmate who was black and from Belize. When we approached the part owner of a restaurant, we were told that our friend from Belize was not welcome.
Perhaps we have come a long way since 1960, but for many of us, our racism may well be hidden from our eyes.
By prayerfully reflecting on the hurts our African-American brothers and sisters, we can gradually invite the Lord to open our eyes.
Perhaps Jesus’ words in the Gospel can jolt us into a deeper awareness of sins that are below the surface of our consciousness. Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.”
When we pick up the cross to follow Jesus, we are simultaneously asked to lay down our sins. So many of our sins are hidden from our eyes. We would do well to befriend Jesus on a daily basis and simply ask Him to reveal to us behaviors to surrender to Him.
It is He who said, “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy, and My burden light.”
When we discover within us any behavior that disconcerts us, we should never turn against ourselves, or think that Jesus will turn against us. Wherever He walked in Palestine, sinners flocked to Him for relief. So should we!
In the Gospel “Great crowds were traveling with Jesus, and He turned and addressed them.” He knew that they were looking for relief within themselves, and He did not hold back from challenging their sinful behavior.
Developing a personal friendship with Jesus is the greatest thing we could do with our lives. He will teach us how to follow Him. He will teach us how to lay our sins and burdens at His feet and He will fill us with joy as He accepts our sorrow for sins.
For Catholics there are three places where this encounter takes place in a profound way. It takes place in our intimate conversations with Him in prayer. He gives us a desire to be intimate with Him and to allow Him to teach us and love us. It also takes place in the confessional when we experience forgiveness for all our sins and freedom from the spirit of condemnation and self-condemnation. It also takes place when we receive Him in the Holy Eucharist. “Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood you will not have life within you.”
We began this article with references to humanity’s cry for help. We end it by coming to Jesus as the wellspring of God’s love for us. May we drink deeply of His love daily!