When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is less than a page long in our sacred scriptures. It is really more of a postcard than a letter, giving us a snapshot of the social and political backdrop as it tells a personal story of three men: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, and the community to which they belong.
Philemon was a relatively well off man, who was loved and respected by those in the Christian community. His house was used as a meeting place for the church. Being a man of considerable influence and resources, Philemon could afford to own slaves, and his slave Onesimus is the subject of this letter to the apostle Paul.
Slaves in the Roman Empire were often brought back as the spoils of war. Prisoners of war were used not only for manual labor but sometimes were well-educated or skilled craftspeople. There were also people who entered into a contract of slavery to pay off a debt or a loan. Their term of service was linked to working off a debt and was time limited. Jewish laws around slavery said the slave was to be freed after seven years; Roman law was much stricter, with provisions for punishing slaves who ran away or didn’t perform their duties.
We don’t really know what kind of slave Onesimus was, but we do know that he had run away. And most likely he had stolen either money or property from his master, or did damage to Philemon’s household.
As grace would have it, Onesimus somehow finds his way into the company of the apostle Paul, who is imprisoned, most likely under house arrest. Perhaps Onesimus was captured and imprisoned for his crime of being a runaway slave. Maybe Onesimus remembered the apostle from one of his visits to his master’s house, and thought if anyone could help him, Paul could. Under Paul’s loving influence, Onesimus becomes a follower of Jesus.
Paul has grown to love Onesimus as a son, and wants to keep him with him, but he urges Onesimus to return to his legal master and set things straight. This is a risky proposition, because under the law Philemon could punish Onesimus severely, the runaway slave might even be crucified for his crimes.
So Paul writes a letter to Philemon, not to command him what to do, but to appeal to him. Paul has no law to back up his request that Philemon forgive Onesimus, there is no social precedent for this.
We read this letter from the distance of 2000 years and the knowledge of how the church has used and interpreted it throughout history and we want to interject: “Paul, wait a minute, can’t you just come right out and say that the institution of slavery is WRONG, it is not what God intends, and it needs to be radically abolished?
Knowing the long history of human slavery and bondage not only in this country but also throughout the world, we can’t help but wish that Paul had taken a more forceful stand against the institution of slavery. We know in hindsight what Paul could not have known at the time; that sacred scriptures, including this letter, would be used to support and justify slavery throughout the history of the church. Even though we understand that Paul expected Christ to return in his lifetime and radically transform the world as they knew it, we wish that Paul had argued against the corrupt institution of slavery in a more direct way. Hindsight tell us that His letter was used to justify the pre-Civil war church split over the issue of slavery in this country, some using Paul’s letter to Philemon to argue that slavery was ordained by God while other Christians interpreting Paul’s work to inspire the church’s pivotal role in the abolition movement, the church at its best, working to transform society.
Paul, couldn’t you have addressed the underlying social ill? We would like to hear something from the leader of the church like we heard from the Pope this week. The Pope who said directly “A military strike on Syria is a bad idea and just plain wrong,” and he asked millions of Catholics throughout the world to join him in a prayer vigil for peace.
Sadly, Paul was not that direct. Though Paul may not have said directly what we want to hear him say: that slavery is wrong, corrupt, and should be abolished, though Paul doesn’t “do social justice” in the way that we would have him to, what he does say here is truly even more revolutionary, a profound truth that was lost on those who have used these words to shore up corrupt systems.
Paul treads very carefully, appealing to Philemon on the higher authority of love. He writes: “I send you my very heart, Onesimus.” Onesimus means “useful.”
“Onesimus has become very useful to me,” Paul writes. “He was useless to you before, but now he is useful to all of us, because of the love of Christ.”
In his appeal to love, Paul knows he is holding all the cards. Paul’s logic is that he is a slave to Jesus, who was a slave to love. Because of love he came and dwelt among us. Because of love Jesus died a death that exposed the violence and destruction of the domination system that enslaves us all. His death revealed the powers and principalities for what they are: a broken system that makes slaves of all of us.
Paul is asking Philemon whose slave HE is, to whom does he belong? Paul is so subtle in his cleverness; he has a way of making Philemon look like the slave and not Onesimus. Paul knows full well that Philemon may be a slave to conventionality, to the pride of his position as a rich man, to the power that is given in a social structure that allows one person to “own” another.
“Whose slave will you be, Philemon,” Paul asks. “Will you be a slave to the domination system that says that one person can own another? Will you be a slave to public opinion, to upholding your social structure, corrupt as it is? Or will you be a slave to Christ, a slave to love, and love your neighbor as yourself, treat your slave as a son or a brother?
Paul appeals to the primacy of love to transform all human structures and relationships. He says that if we treat each other as beloved brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, then that love and connection will subvert all other structures that seek to oppress. This is a profound and revolutionary truth.
Many of us listened again week before last to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. In it, he held up a vision of a society transformed by relationship so powerful that it toppled the power of segregation to separate and divide. He spoke of the need to transform societal structures that oppress, but he also went deeper, to the level of human connection.
When I listened again to Dr. King describing his dream that “one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” I remembered a story that I heard about the de-segregation of the schools in this country. A little white girl came home from the first day of attending an integrated school to parents who anxiously asked if there were any black children in her class. The girl said: “Yes, there was a little black girl who sat next to me.” The parents couldn’t hide their fear as they asked: “And what happened.” The little girl answered: “We were both so afraid that we held hands all day long.”
The image of those two little girls, holding hands in their common humanity, is the image of a crack in the foundation of an unjust system, an image of the power of connection, compassion, relationship, and love to change the world. The apostle Paul appeals to the radical power of love and compassion to change hearts and minds.
“Remember,” Paul says to Philemon, “that once you were a slave, but I introduced you to freedom in Christ, so you owe me.”
“If Onesimus owes you anything,” Paul insists, referring to the laws about how slaves had to repay their missed work, “Just charge it to my account. We’ll be even.”
I imagine the brave Onesimus, going back to his master, not certain whether he will be beaten or killed, daring to trust that the power of God was greater than the power of slavery. He hands the letter written by Paul to Philemon, and watches the mix of emotions work their way across his face.
“Whose slave will you be, Philemon,” Paul is asking. “Think of your credit history, how much you owe God, the freedom God has given you.”
And Philemon looked up into the eyes of Onesimus, once a slave, now a beloved brother in Christ. And the tiny crack in the foundation of all that was unjust widened, and grew, and spread, until it freed the whole world. AMEN.