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There’s a lot of stuff in the Bible! And of all the things you might miss, it would be understandable to miss Paul’s letter to Philemon, which we read as our second reading today. Part of the reason is that it’s so short! We read almost the entire thing today. There are only 4 verses at the end (in which Paul greets a couple of people) that got left out of today’s reading. And so in most Bibles, this letter is only one page long.
And moreover, this is a personal letter to an individual named Philemon. Philemon is one of Paul’s converts in the city of Colossae, and he’s a major helper in Paul’s ministry there.
But this letter is not a theological treatise. It’s not about church disputes. And it’s not about taking up a collection for the saints who are need in Jerusalem (these are all key topics in Paul’s other letters.)
Instead, this letter is about just one person. And that person is a guy named Onesimus. And Onesimus is Philemon’s slave.
Now in the New Testament, there are quite a few general references to slaves and slavery. There are slaves who show up as characters in Jesus’ parables. And there are metaphorical calls for Christians to consider themselves “slaves” of the Lord, and “slaves” of one another.
But Onesimus is one of the few actual, named slaves that we read about. Onesimus is the actual slave of Philemon. Onesimus has run away from Philemon, and found Paul, who’s in prison either in Rome or in Ephesus. And under Paul’s influence, Onesimus has become a Christian. But Onesimus is still legally Philemon’s slave.
And in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, slavery was legal, as it was in the United States for centuries. And it’s natural for us as Americans to read the word “slavery” and picture in our minds American slavery.
But while slavery is always a horrible thing that deprives people of freedom and dignity, when you read the New Testament, it’s often important to understand how slavery in the ancient Graeco-Roman world differed from our experience of slavery in the United States.
For example, in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, slavery:
- Was not racial or ethnic – anybody could end up a slave, usually because they lost a war or had an unpaid debt … (we correctly associate American slavery with racism, but that wasn’t the case in the New Testament)
- Was not hereditary – it’s true that if you were a slave, you might be a slave for the rest of your life, and your minor children (who were considered your “property”) were slaves with you. But under Roman law, as soon as your children reached the age of maturity, they were free… (and sometimes were then able to buy their parents out of slavery)
- Was often highly skilled – it’s true that many slaves were just canon fodder, but often people were kept as slaves because they had skills and education that enabled them to be tutors, engineers or financial managers … (which is important to know for some of the parables to make sense…)
Which is to say that, even the Romans (remember, these were the guys who threw people to lions and watched gladiators kill each other for sport), would have considered American slavery to be particularly sick and depraved. Some people wonder why the legacy of slavery in our country is so immense. And it’s because slavery in the US was orders of magnitude worse than even the slavery practiced by the Romans.
But what was the same about American and Roman slavery was that if a slave ran away, the slave could simply be killed. Slave revolts in Rome were put down with brutal efficiency. In fact, Josephus (a historian of the second century) tells us that after a particularly large slave revolt, crucified slaves lined the road leading into Rome.
So Paul and Onesimus have a problem. Paul is technically harboring a run-away slave. And in any event, Paul is in prison (even if under house arrest), and can’t protect Onesimus if Philemon finds him. And so Paul decides to write this letter to Philemon.
And in this letter, Paul doesn’t debate the pros and cons of slavery. He doesn’t talk about whether it’s moral or not. He doesn’t even insist that Philemon should free Onesimus (although that’s clearly implied.)
Instead, he makes the point that Onesimus is now not only Philemon’s slave, but his brother in Christ. He writes, “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
That is to say, “your relationship with Jesus changes your whole relationship with Onesimus.” No matter what the law says you have a right to do, no matter what society says you should do, and no matter what others around you think is “proper”, your relationship with Jesus is the basis of how you live and relate to other people. And Jesus’ relationship with others changes how you should see them.
And I think that’s what still makes this letter important for us today. While Paul writes this letter to one person, and about one issue, the idea that Paul lifts up is universal. And that idea is that when we have a living relationship with Jesus, and when we know that Jesus is alive and active in the lives of others, how we see and relate to one another is supposed to be different.
And that continues to be an important message for us in our fractured and divided society today. All too often, we get told by the world around us that we can dismiss others, or treat them with contempt, because of their political views, who they voted for, their culture, their religion or their social background.
Or perhaps, we can just ignore them, because they don’t live very close to us, or they’re just too different, or because they really, in fact, don’t like us.
But Jesus loves each one of “us.” And Jesus loves each one of “them.” And whether others know that or not, we’re supposed to know that as Christians. And Paul calls us, as he knew Jesus called him, to see and treat people differently because of our active and living relationship with Jesus.
And living like that in our world today may be almost as radical as it was for Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother rather than a slave. But it’s what Jesus calls us to do, and when we open ourselves to that kind of living, God can do amazing things with us and through us.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any follow-up letters to find out what Philemon did when he got this letter. Did he do what Paul asked? Did he receive Onesimus as his brother in Christ? Did he free Onesimus? There’s no way of knowing for sure.
But there are some interesting theories. First of all, the oldest copies of Paul’s letters are found in collections, which were distributed among early churches. The letter to Philemon is almost always among them. And it seems improbable that if Philemon had ignored Paul and had Onesimus executed that he wouldn’t have also burned the letter. So, there’s a good chance Philemon took Paul’s words to heart.
But who would have made sure that this personal, and otherwise insignificant letter would have made it into those collections? There’s another interesting theory. Some of these earliest collections of Paul’s letters date to the early first century in Ephesus. And we know that at that time, there was a bishop in Ephesus named Onesimus.
Was this Bishop Onesimus the same Onesimus that was once the slave of Philemon? And was he responsible for putting together some of the early collections of Paul’s letters? And did he make for sure the letter that freed him was among them?
Nobody knows for sure. But if so, we get a glimpse into the powerfully good things that can happen when people are treated like brothers in Christ. We get a sense of what God can do when people take their relationship with Jesus seriously.
But real question that remains isn’t about Onesimus, or even about Philemon. The question Paul asks is about us. Are we going to take our relationship with Jesus seriously in our everyday lives? Are we going to treat others differently because of our relationship with Jesus? And are we watching for what God can do with us and through us when we live our relationship with Jesus in the lives of others?