Sunday 8 September 2019
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 23C
This morning we read the entirety of one of the books the bible. We read the entire letter of Paul to Philemon. Of all of Paul’s letters, this is the least theological and the most directly concerned with regular worldly affairs. Paul has a very specific purpose, and he uses all of his rhetorical skill, every argument and technique at his disposal, to achieve his aims.
(If you want to follow along in your Bible, I’ll be walking right through Paul’s argument.)
It begins like any good letter in the Hellenistic world, with the name of the sender: Paul. But rather than describing himself as an apostle, as he so often does, he describes himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, a point that he will come back to later in the letter. For now, it is enough to know that Paul is writing from prison and that he is in prison on account of the Gospel.
Next comes the name of the recipient: Philemon, our dear friend and co-worker. Paul is appealing to Philemon on the basis of friendship, and as we’ll see in a minute, Paul begins buttering up Philemon by calling him his co-worker in the gospel. Also addressed are Apphia and Archippus, and the church that meets in Philemon’s house. This means that when Philemon hears this letter read out loud, he won’t be alone. He’ll be in the presence of the whole community, and they can keep him accountable.
So now we are starting to get a picture of who Philemon is. We know that he must be wealthy if he is able to host a church in his home. His household probably includes slaves. It’s fairly safe to assume that Philemon’s church was originally founded by Paul, since we know from his other writings that Paul tends not to meddle in churches that he himself has not founded. That means that it’s also safe to assume that Philemon himself came to Christ through Paul. And it is more than likely that Philemon is a Gentile, because Paul understood his mission from God as the Apostle to the Gentiles, and he didn’t spend much time trying to bring the gospel to fellow Jews. So we have Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, writing to his spiritual pupil, Philemon, who is the head of his own house church.
After a brief blessing, Paul really starts to butter up Philemon. He praises Philemon for his faith, for his evangelical work, and for his love and service toward the saints. While commending him for the work he has already done, Paul also prays that Philemon’s ministry will grow and prosper even more than it already has.
With Philemon sufficiently flattered, it’s time for Paul to broach the subject of the letter. And here is where you really see Paul’s mastery. “Though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, I would rather appeal to you through love.” What better way to make a threat than to insist ahead of time that you are not going to make a threat. I could just order you, says Paul, and you would have to do what I say, but instead, I’m going to ask you on the basis of love. And then Paul really pours it on. “And I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” You wouldn’t turn down the request of an old man, would you? Especially not an old man who is in prison? Did I mention that I’m in prison?
Finally he comes the beginning of the request. Paul is making an appeal on behalf of Onesimus. It’s not completely clear what Onesimus’s circumstances are, except that he is slave of Philemon. It’s possible that Onesimus has run away. It’s not clear what the situation is; Paul doesn’t have to spell it out because Philemon already knows. In any case, Onesimus makes his way to Paul at some point, perhaps feeling that he was in danger if he stayed in Philemon’s household. He has come to Paul for help, and Paul has seemingly decided to argue on Onesimus’s behalf. Paul calls Onesimus his son, and tells Philemon that he has given birth to Onesimus while he is in prison.
Now might be a good moment to talk about prisons at the time. It was hundreds of years before the Penitentiary would be invented. Prisons, at least for the well-to-do, were not the kind of high-security, lock-and-key institutions we think of today. While some prisons were the dungeons you might imagine in ancient times, prisoners like Paul were often held under a sort of house arrest. They were allowed visitors. They could conduct business. They often had to provide for their own means while in prison.
So this explains why Paul would be able to meet up with Onesimus while Paul himself was in prison. Onesimus came and visited Paul in prison, and cared for his needs, becoming like a son to Paul. It was the responsibility of one’s friends and neighbors to look after someone who was in prison. Certainly within the churches, it was the responsibility of Christians to care for other Christians in prison, especially if they were in prison on account of the faith. This is what Onesimus has done for Paul.
And so it is with no small amount of sarcasm that Paul writes to Philemon, “I considered keeping him with me so that he might serve me in your place during my time in prison because of the gospel. However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure.” Even this slave came to take care of me in prison, but you, my friend and co-worker, a man of means, have done nothing to help me. That is the subtext. An insult to Philemon, but masterfully laced with sugar by Paul.
Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter in his hand. And Paul wants to see a change in their relationship. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while,” writes Paul, “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.” You can hardly tell because of the pleasant way that he says it, but Paul is calling on Philemon to free Onesimus from slavery, to accept him back into the household not as a slave, but as a brother. And not just as a spiritual brother but still a temporal slave, but rather a brother in the flesh and in the Lord. Paul, in the most underplayed way possible, is demanding that Philemon free Onesimus and accept him into the household as a free man.
The name Onesimus means useful. And so Paul puns on the name of this slave to make his point. “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.”
And now, Paul is really going to turn the screws, but with a smile still plastered across his face. “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Translation: if you ever want to have anything to do with me again, you had better shape up and do what I say. “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.” Translation: you had better not use some wrong Onesimus has committed against you in the past as a reason to keep him enslaved. If you’re going to be that petty, then I myself will pay the cost. “I say nothing about your owing me even your own life.” Now Paul is really laying it on. Oh, by the way, did you forget that you owe me your very soul? You want to talk about debts—let’s talk about that debt if you want to talk about debts.
Paul goes on, “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” What a wonderful technique: compliment someone for doing something that they haven’t done yet. Not only does it let Philemon know that Paul expects him to comply, but it puts him so off guard that he feels like he has no choice but to do so.
And then, the final nail. “One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Beware, says Paul, if you are thinking about some way to get out of this, if you even consider treating Onesimus with less than the full respect that I expect from you, I am going to come and check up on you. Don’t think for a minute that prison can keep me from following through on this.
And then the finishing touch. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
So, what are we to take from this most unusual letter of Paul? Paul rarely challenges the systems of oppression in his time. In fact, don’t we usually quote Paul as saying “Slaves, obey your masters; wives, obey your husbands.” In point of fact, that isn’t Paul, but it someone writing in Paul’s name. Nonetheless, Paul was convinced that the end times were near. And his mission was to get as many Gentiles under the banner of Christ as possible before the end came. He had to appeal to the broadest audience possible. He didn’t have time to try to confront all of the injustices in the world, especially when he thought that in a very short time they would all become irrelevant.
But in this one case, Paul takes a stand. And he does it in the most politic way possible, but he says it none the less: “In light of Jesus Christ, slavery is wrong.” Jesus’s death and resurrection has changed the nature of humanity. Before, only the Judeans were acknowledged as children of God, and every good Torah student knows that Jews aren’t allowed to enslave other Jews, at least not in perpetuity. But now Jesus’s death and resurrection has changed things. Now even the Gentiles are children of God, because God has adopted them into God’s family through the blood of Christ. And if all of humanity is now a part of God’s family, if we are all brothers and sisters through the faith of Jesus Christ, then none of us can truly be a slave. A brother cannot enslave his own brother. A sister cannot enslave her own sister. And so, since we are all sisters and brothers in God, none of us can rightly enslave any other human being.
Now, Paul doesn’t want to push that point generally. He knows that in that time and in that place, it would not have been heard, and he would have lost all of his credibility. But in this one moment, we get a peak at the inner Paul. We get a look at the Paul who will put his entire reputation on the line, who will use the full weight of his person and his status in order to free one slave. This is where he puts into practice that motto, that creed: “Because of Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female.”
We too rarely confront the oppressive systems in our time. After all, we still have to live in our society whether we approve of every part of it or not. And it is much easier to just keep our heads down and make our way than to beat our heads over and over again against institutions and attitudes that seem like they will never change.
But there may come a moment. There may come a time when you have the choice to either stand up and make a difference or to let the moment simply pass by. There may come a time when you have the power to make a difference, to stand up for someone who has been beaten down, to put your own reputation and safety on the line for someone else. And I pray that when that moment comes for you, or for me, that we will each have the courage set aside our plans and our routines and to do what is right, to stand for the humanity that Christ died to save, just as Paul stood up for a man that society had declared useless and proclaimed, “Now he is indeed useful.”