Paul wrote a lot of letters that are in the Bible. The last one of his letters is a very short one. It is a letter to a man named Philemon, and in it, it’s clear that Paul really wants Philemon to do something for him.
Paul has a way of expressing it, and wanting Philemon to do what he’s looking for. He says near the beginning of the letter that he is so thankful to God for who Philemon is that he thanks God always for him. He says that he has authority as one of the highest leaders in the whole church, authority given to him personally from Jesus himself, to tell him to do whatever he wants. But, he doesn’t command him, he doesn’t order him, or threaten him. He doesn’t send him an impersonal letter, and he doesn’t give him a deadline. He doesn’t use passive-aggressive control techniques. Instead, he says he’s going to appeal to him. For love’s sake. He wants his heart above everything else.
Now, you might think: well, that’s nice. He’s a nice and caring guy. But here’s the thing: that’s PAUL who is doing it. Paul, who was the most conservative of all the Jews. Paul, the same guy who excelled in studying the law and who lived strictly by it. Paul, the same guy opposed to big-wave-makers in politics and religion. Paul, who was ready to defend all the traditional values and institutions, ready to debate or argue at any time to do it, and even willing to use force – even death – to get his way. Paul, who looked on gentiles, on foreigners, as unclean.
What happened? How did Paul go from controlling superboss to humble servant? What made the big change?
An encounter with Jesus.
These days I am in Ecuador, living with and helping the poor. I am not just going along with what is already here. I am doing new things. And in the school and parish, I don’t tell people what to do. I don’t pressure people into parish first communion programs, or into going to the Sunday Mass or liturgies. I don’t “stack the deck” and put passive convicting pressures on them to receive sacraments. I don’t guilt people into supporting parish programs. I don’t tell the high school students what we are going to do in the English Club, and I don’t teach a class with my broken Spanish.
Although, I could do all that. As others have made very clear to me, the people and the students would obey. But that’s not what I do. I appeal and leave them free. Although this drives pastors and principals and all the bossy types crazy, I still do it. For love’s sake. I want hearts above everything else.
Now, you might think, what a nice little story, or maybe, you’re bananas, Jerome. But here’s the thing: it’s ME who’s doing it.
Last year I stopped by my friend Joe’s house. We’ve been friends since our teens. I showed him some of the videos I had made from my time in Ecuador, with the building of the church and spending time with the people there, and visiting the remote poor villages, with all the smiles and joy and peace. It is a different world. A little afterwards, he said to me, “Jerome, everything you’re doing now is completely different. I mean, I remember one day I was like 10 minutes late to meet up to go out somewhere, and you were like, ‘You’re 10 minutes late! You’re wasting my time!'”
I am the guy who was voted the most conservative in his high school class of over 300. The guy who studied engineering with an advanced degree and won university awards. A business, company man who believed in trickle-down economics and the free market and investing money for myself and my retirement. A guy opposed to big-wave-makers in politics and church and the company. A guy who was ready to defend all the conservative values and institutions, ready to debate or argue at any time to do it, even if it meant hurting others to win the argument. A guy who looked down on ethnic minorities and immigrants, and in private company used all the racial slurs in the book.
What made the difference?
What made the change?
There’s a reason Christian society divided up human history into B.C. and A.D. Before Christ and the Year of the Lord. It’s because at some point, everything changed. It’s the same for each of us, just like with Paul.
What makes the difference?
What makes the change?
“He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” (Gal 1:23)