The Dictionary Makes a Lousy Bible

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Look up the name Onesimus in the dictionary and you’ll see it means “useful,” “helpful,” or “profitable.” Look it up in the Bible and, according to St. Paul, it means ‘slave.’ In fact, this was a common name for slaves in his day. 

In other words, many people were considered commodities. The dictionary tells us a commodity is also a raw material that can be bought or sold. That seems antithetical to the unique nature of our human spirit, which through our Creator, was meant to be one-of-a-kind. But thanks to humanity’s attraction to vanity and our jealousy for power, we’ve always found ways to enslave uncommon spirits in a common cage. As this Sunday’s first reading implies (Wis 9:13-18b), this keeps those of us who like assigning people to this world’s boxes from rising to our own true nature and recognizing humanity’s divine source.

For the corruptible body burdens the soul
 and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.
 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?
 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.

Unfortunately, commoditization is attractive to us because it makes everything understandable. We tend to hate the beauty in God’s mystery, and our discomfort with it can turn evil if we turn it toward fellow unique souls so we can commoditize them for our own comfort. That commoditization in itself is a form of slavery, and why Paul wanted his friend Philemon to renounce it in the case of his runaway slave Onesimus and make of him, instead, something more …

… “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.” (Phmn 9-10, 12-17)

The gospels prove Jesus wanted to free us all from slavery to this world’s definitions. He knew that our tendency to see others as commodities rather than loved ones can lead us to turning even loved ones into slaves. In this way, Mommy and Daddy are loved for their usefulness to us rather than as partners in the uncommon love of God. That’s appropriate while we’re children learning the differences between right and wrong, but eventually role playing by the world’s rules can limit our ability to see God in others. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant by telling us to hate father and mother. By hating the commoditization of those roles and freeing the Holy Spirit associated with them, they are no longer our possessions but part of us.

“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple…. anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:25-33)

Many of us are packrats when it comes to boxes. How many of them do we store in our life’s basement, hoping that someday what we loaded into them long ago will eventually be of value? Maybe we’d all be better off relegating those boxes to this world’s landfills and releasing ourselves to the friendship of God’s uncontainable and indefinable Holy Spirit.

–Tom Andel

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