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As you Bible scholars know, this is the shortest letter from Paul in the entire New Testament - not much more than a post card, really. It is unquestionably bold in this attempt to get involved in a situation that could easily have provoked a response that this is none of his business - this is between master and slave, nothing more. Butt out! But on this one, Paul WAS in the middle. He almost had no choice to say something.
A bit of background. Philemon is a wealthy Christian of the city of either the city of Colossae or Laodicia, depending on which commentator you read. The Apphia mentioned is probably Philemon's wife. Archippus is perhaps the leader of the "house church" that met in Philemon's home. Onesimus is Philemon's property - a slave (and probably a thief) who has run away to lose himself in the epicenter of the empire, Rome. Paul has become friends of both having been instrumental in their conversions to Christ. And that is why he is caught in the middle.
There are two things to note at the outset. One is that Paul does not condemn the institution of slavery. We might wish he had because human slavery is a horror that has caused untold human misery through the centuries, not to mention the bloodiest war in our own nation's history. The other is that Philemon had every right to do with Onesimus as he chose. A master had absolute power over his slaves. Pliny tells how Vedius Pollio treated a slave who was carrying a tray of crystal goblets into the courtyard. He dropped one, it broke. Instantly Pollio ordered him thrown into the fishpond in the middle of the court, where the savage lampreys tore him to pieces. Juvenal draws the picture of the mistress who will beat her maidservant at her caprice and the master who "delights in the sound of a cruel flogging, deeming it sweeter than any siren's song," who is never happy "until he has summoned a torturer and he can brand someone with a hot iron for stealing a couple of towels."(1)
Paul is on the horns of a dilemma. He is not only harboring a runaway slave; he is a party to a wrong done against one of his own converts, a leader of the church. We have no idea, of course, what sort of a master Philemon had been, what kind of life Onesimus had had as a slave. In this case, the ancient world would presume the guilt of the slave; we presume the guilt of the master. Most of our great moral dilemmas are like that.(2) The answer, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
So Paul sends his note. I love the way he begins:
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.Yep. Flattery will get you everywhere. The hook has been baited. Now to the heart of the matter. Paul is asking a favor, not something he does very often. Somehow, the runaway Onesimus has come to the apostle who is under house arrest in Rome (we surmise) awaiting execution, and the encounter has proven to be a life-changing experience for both of them. Onesimus has become a Christian; Paul has found a valued and beloved companion and helper in the young fugitive. He even makes a pun out of Onesimus' name. "Onesimus" in Greek literally means "profitable." Once Onesimus was a useless fellow, but he is wonderfully useful now. So Paul takes this rather remarkable step of asking Philemon to graciously accept Onesimus back to his household. Not only does Paul expect Philemon not to kill the lad or brand him on the forehead as a captured runaway, he expects Philemon to welcome him back as family, as a brother in the Lord. Paul says, "welcome him as you would welcome me." Bold request. Not just a sour shrug of the shoulders and an agreement not to press charges. Full reconciliation. Wow!
Of course, reconciliation is a two-way street, and we, unfortunately, have only one side of the story. We have Paul's note to Philemon, but we do not have Paul's conversation with Onesimus, convincing him to return to Colossae. That must have been a humdinger. Can you imagine being Onesimus and being encouraged to go back to a master who had the legal right to kill you without batting an eye if he chose? In going back, Onesimus was literally taking his life in his hands. Reconciliation does take real courage sometimes. It would take courage on Philemon's part too because the expectation of the empire would be for a master to deal harshly with a runaway slave as an example to keep others in line. Courage.
No different today. Issues of reconciliation are at the heart of so many of our problems, whether on the grand scale, between blacks and whites, Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, third world and first world, or on the smaller scale, between estranged husbands and wives, children and parents, colleagues and friends, even in the church, not so much over issues of ministry and mission, but over the color of the carpet or how to decorate the nursery. Paul's little note to Philemon lets us know how important it is.
Mahatma Gandhi, in his autobiography wrote that during his student days in London he read the Gospels seriously and considered converting to Christianity. He believed that in the teachings of Jesus he could find the solution to the caste system that was dividing the people of India. So one Sunday he decided to attend services at a nearby church and talk to a minister about becoming a Christian. When he entered the sanctuary, however, the usher refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned. "If Christians have caste differences also," he said, "I might as well remain a Hindu."(3) How sad.
No, we do not have caste differences. As Paul himself noted Christians are one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free.(4) In fact, he would go so far as to say that, "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female."(5) All barriers are broken down. A grand equality. Almost a Christian precursor to King Arthur's mythical Round Table where everyone had a place and it was one for all and all for one.
Did Paul's request of Philemon work? Move forward about fifty years. Ignatius, one of the early Christian martyrs, is being taken to execution from Antioch to Rome. As he goes, he writes letters to the Churches of Asia Minor which still survive. He stops at Smyrna, writes to the Church at Ephesus, and has some lovely things to say about their wonderful bishop. The bishop's name? Onesimus.(6) Hmm.
Now we gather again. Family. Philemon, Onesimus, Paul, you, me. For each of us, there IS a place at the table, no matter what. Welcome.
1. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
2. N. T. Wright, "Philemon Then and Now," 9/9/01, http://www.westminster-abbey.org/voice/sermon/archives/010912_sermon.htm
3. Daphne Deng, "Accepting One Another," http://www.ascension.org.sg/Articles/accepting_one_another.htm
4. I Corinthians 12:13
5. Galatians 3:28
6. William Barclay, ibid.