Daily Reflection
November 11th, 2004
Robert P. Heaney
John A.Creighton University Professor
Click here for a photo of and information on this writer.

Memorial of Saint Martin of Tours, bishop
Philemon 7-20
Psalm 146:7, 8-9a, 9bc-10
Luke 17:20-25

If we paid attention to the words of “The Lord’s Prayer,” we would note that we ask God to inaugurate his kingdom “on earth,” not just in heaven.  And if we wanted to know what that might mean, we need only look at the parable of the prodigal son, in which the father, reaching out in love to his lost son, broke all the rules of behavior by which a well-ordered society structured itself. Still, we can easily rationalize all that and relegate the kingdom to the hereafter.

But then we bump head-first into this letter to Philemon. Here is not a set of noble principles or high-sounding (but impractical) ideals. Here is a polite request of one man to another to do some kingdom-coming now – and in the process literally to turn his tidy little world on its head.

The Roman empire was built on slavery, and it was a far more brutal kind than any we have experienced in the last few centuries. A runaway slave, if captured, was to be executed, with exceptional cruelty, in front of all the other slaves, to serve as a lesson to them. Not doing so would lead to other defections – to slave uprisings and the enmity of neighbors trying to maintain order among their own slaves. But that is exactly what Paul asks Philemon to do for his runaway slave, Onesimus. 

We do not, unfortunately, know what happened. Maybe Philemon said “No.” But we cannot really take any comfort in that ignorance. The same sort of world-upsetting actions are asked of us – and politely, as well – so gently, in fact, that we too can say “No,” or perhaps pretend we never heard the request. I hope and pray we do not. Our world needs a lot of kingdom-coming.

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