So after a week of reading disappointing news online, especially Wednesday night – I took a look at the readings for Thursday for our “Late Night Mass” prior to our Holy Hour here at the Newman Catholic at Montclair State.  It resulted in a much longer homily then I’d normally write for a daily Mass, which I’ll credit to the Holy Spirit – and offer here (following the readings for today’s Mass)

Reading 1 Phmn 7-20

I have experienced much joy and encouragement from your love,
because the hearts of the holy ones
have been refreshed by you, brother.
Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ
to order you to do what is proper,
I rather urge you out of love,
being as I am, Paul, an old man,
and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus.
I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus,
whose father I have become in my imprisonment,
who was once useless to you but is now useful to both you and me.
I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.
I should have liked to retain him for myself,
so that he might serve me on your behalf
in my imprisonment for the Gospel,
but I did not want to do anything without your consent,
so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.
Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while,
that you might have him back forever,
no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother,
beloved especially to me, but even more so to you,
as a man and in the Lord.
So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.
And if he has done you any injustice
or owes you anything, charge it to me.
I, Paul, write this in my own hand: I will pay.
May I not tell you that you owe me your very self.
Yes, brother, may I profit from you in the Lord.
Refresh my heart in Christ.

Responsorial Psalm Ps 146:7, 8-9a, 9bc-10

R. (5a) Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob.
The LORD secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
R. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob.
The LORD gives sight to the blind.
The LORD raises up those who were bowed down;
the LORD loves the just.
The LORD protects strangers.
R. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob.
The fatherless and the widow he sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations. Alleluia.
R. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob.

Gospel Lk 17:20-25

Asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come,
Jesus said in reply,
“The coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed,
and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’
For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.”Then he said to his disciples,
“The days will come when you will long to see
one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it.
There will be those who will say to you,
‘Look, there he is,’ or ‘Look, here he is.’
Do not go off, do not run in pursuit.
For just as lightning flashes
and lights up the sky from one side to the other,
so will the Son of Man be in his day.
But first he must suffer greatly and be rejected by this generation.”

          That first reading tonight is really an important one that we rarely focus on or hear from.  It’s very short – there’s only one chapter.  In it, Paul’s writing about Onesimus, a slave, who had run away from his master, perhaps guilty of theft in the process. Onesimus was converted to Christ by Paul. Paul sends him back to his master with this letter asking that he be welcomed willingly by his old master not just as a slave but as a brother in Christ. 

          That’s a jarring bunch of circumstances to put into historical context.  Some read this and are angered that Paul isn’t denouncing the institution of slavery – condemning the human atrocity of it… He writes beautifully on behalf of Onesimus – but he’s putting him in danger in a sense by asking him to return to men who, despite being Christians themselves, have allowed themselves to accept what was an accepted (albeit horrifically corrupt) human institution.  Paul had often written condemning of other human sins and evils… There’s plenty of passages about sexual immorality, and expectations of Christmas men and women.  Why didn’t he in this case?

          I think because in those other instances he’s giving moral teachings.  In those instances when he’s writing he’s offering general correctives or giving guidance to a community.  But in this instance he knows both Onesimus and the men he’s sending him back to.  So it’s personal – and it’s pastoral.

          So the great and eloquent preacher, the man who has spent his life preaching the Gospel; the man who will give his life for the Gospel writes to these men and not only is praying and hoping they do the right thing – for themselves – and their own souls; for the witness that this will speak to others about the difference that being a follower of Jesus Christ makes… but also for something else – for himself.  He the apostle, the preacher, the writer of the bulk of the New Testament needs their faith as a witness for himself as he’s an old man and in prison.  We know that as we read those aching words:  Refresh my heart in Christ.

          He’s being honest… he needs them and wants them to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, but he needs to see the faith of Jesus Christ taking root in their hearts, transforming their lives, upending a horrifically unjust human institution in a way that was so radically counter cultural to the people of that day and time.  He needs to see the Risen Christ, the Easter miracle of Jesus’ Amazing Grace truly setting a man free.  He needs to see the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.  He pleads for all of this, knowing that it would indeed Refresh his heart in Christ.

          I’ll be honest, there’s been times that I’ve struggled with this reading because of all of those historical problems.  But coupled with tonight’s Gospel it makes sense.  In the Gospel Jesus is going back and forth with this Pharisee who is asking Jesus where is the Kingdom of God?  Isn’t that a question all of us asks at some point?

          When we’re struggling… When we’re suffering… When we’re confronted by injustice or discrimination… When we’re scandalized and traumatized…  We cry out to the heavens looking for an answer.  Wanting a divine intervention to end any and all “free will” to institute God’s will. 

          Yet Jesus, pushes back.  He’s willing to go to Hell and Back (literally) lay down his life (literally) to empower us and enable us to make real Jesus’ words: THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS AMONG YOU.  Jesus is the way, the truth, the life – He has laid out the road map.  There’s a way and answer to the injustices, the inequities, the pains and sufferings of humanity when we listen, believe and follow His way, His truth and His life. 

          We don’t know what happened to Onesimus.  Stinks doesn’t it.  We all want a happy ending to a story.  Was Paul’s heart refreshed in Christ?  I don’t know if it was in this instance – if his pleas where heard and this letter wasn’t just preserved in scripture but was part of the dynamic witness of the Early Church where people were drawn to change their lives because of the power of Jesus Christ. 

          But as this scripture is proclaimed and the Word of God is a living and active word, we’re left to ask ourselves- What is it that Paul would look at in our lives that he would be pleading with us to change?  Is it a sin we’ve become too comfortable with to directly confront and actively work to root out?  Is it our indifference to the needs of someone we know is in need?  Is it the apathy we have in proclaiming the Gospel in our lives?  How can you and I refresh Paul’s heart?  How can you and I witness to the Kingdom of God being among us?