It hardly ever happens that we get to read nearly an entire book of the bible all in one sitting. But today we do that with St Paul’s letter to Philemon; only a couple of lines at the end dealing with incidental details are omitted from the reading.
So let’s set the stage. Paul is in prison as he writes this. It’s a pretty humane imprisonment as that sort of thing goes; his friends and other visitors apparently have generous access to him, and he’s allowed to have a secretary to write down what he dictates. One of these visitors is a fellow named Onesimus, which, in Greek, means “useful”; that’s an important fact to know because Paul plays a little word game with that name at a really key point in the letter. Paul is instrumental in leading Onesimus to Christ, and becomes the young man’s mentor and spiritual father. They are very close.
But there’s a problem. Onesimus, it turns out, is a runaway slave. And, to make matters worse, the master he ran away from is also a Christian, and somebody whom Paul knows fairly well from his missionary work prior to this particular imprisonment, a guy named Philemon. One of those uncomfortable “small world” moments. Of all the people for Onesimus to hook up with, he had to choose somebody who knew his boss!
So Paul wants to fix things. But before we dig in and begin to look at his strategy, which is very impressive, we have to do just a little bit of mental housekeeping, and at least be aware of, even if we don’t set them completely aside, the prejudices and assumptions we bring to this story. One important reality we need to realize that that, while slavery is always slavery—one human being claiming to own another human being—slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world was a much, much less brutal institution than it was in the American South prior to the Civil War, which is the mental model you and I are most likely to import into the mix between Paul and Onesimus and Philemon. Still, from the standpoint of pure justice, Onesimus was within his rights to run away. No human being has the right to own another human being. This may not have been as self-evident to Philemon as it is to us, or even as it was, I would suggest, to Paul. But it’s nonetheless true. From the standpoint, like I said, of pure justice, Onesimus didn’t do anything wrong.
So why didn’t Paul just give Onesimus a high-five and shoot an email off to Philemon, “You idiot! Christians can’t own slaves! What were you thinking?” Because, not only did he not do that, but he sent Onesimus back to Philemon with only this lousy letter for protection, all at some considerable risk, one might imagine, to Onesimus. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation! What’s going on here?
I haven’t formally studied mathematics for 42 years—and counting! But one thing I do remember from studying math is that it usually not enough just to get the right answer. You’ve got to get the right answer for the right reason. That’s why teachers make you show your work, rather than just fill in the blank with the right answer. Well, that’s kind of what’s going on between Paul and Philemon. That “right answer,” of course, is for Onesimus to be free, to no longer be a slave. The “right answer” is for Philemon to permanently set Onesimus free—to do so openly and legally, as only he was able to do. Paul wants Onesimus to enjoy freedom that is not tainted by being technically illegal and underground. He wants Onesimus to be free openly, transparently, not in the shadows. Onesimus deserved that much as a human being created in the image of God. For Philemon to liberate Onesimus was most definitely the right answer. It would satisfy the obvious demands of justice—obvious to us, at any rate, though probably not so much to Philemon and his contemporaries.
But even that is not good enough for Paul. He doesn’t simply want Onesimus to be free. He doesn’t simply want Onesimus to be legally emancipated by Philemon just because it’s the right thing to do. He wants Onesimus’ freedom to flow naturally from both Onesimus and Philemon having a mutual epiphany, a simultaneous “Aha!” moment. He wants them both to understand that the entire foundation of their relationship is no longer determined by Roman law, or by Greek social custom, but by the new identities that have been given by having both been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul wants them to know that their union in Christ trumps and transforms all other dimensions of their relationship.
But in order to bring them both to such a realization, especially Philemon, Paul has to persuade Onesimus to once again put himself in a very vulnerable position, putting his very freedom at risk. Paul wants Onesimus to return to Philemon and say, “I’m back. What’s next?” And he wants Philemon, in turn, to not merely come to his senses about the immorality of slavery, but to see Onesimus not as a slave, or even a former slave, but as a brother in Christ. “Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.” And he wants it to be Philemon’s idea, not a matter of bowing to pressure from his old friend Paul. He says, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.”
Now, chattel slavery is no longer an institution of our society. So we might be tempted to admire Paul’s rhetorical skill in this letter, but then cast it aside as not really relevant. We would be wrong to do so. While we may not deal with slavery in our experience, we do deal with issues of identity. Even more than he wanted freedom for Onesimus, Paul wanted Onesimus and Philemon both to set aside entirely their slave-master relationship. More than wanting it to be over, he wanted them to see it as meaningless, moot, yesterday’s news. Our society invites us to claim our identity—in effect, to name ourselves—in a multitude of ways. Young … old … fat … sick … successful … poor … gay … straight … American … disabled … educated … wealthy … depressed … beautiful … clever … illiterate … illegal … bright … addicted … and many, many more. We are every day sucked into defining ourselves, and therefore our relationship with others, whether we’re aware of it or not, according to these labels. Paul invited Onesimus and Philemon to cast aside “master” and “slave” as categories by which they understood themselves and their relationship to one another, and to adopt instead “brother in Christ.” He invites us, through this letter, to do the same. He invites us to set all those other identities down on the ground—not necessarily as garbage, but simply as no longer necessary, no longer relevant—and keep on moving. He invites us to see our relationships with one another not as people who agree on something, or who share the same political views or the same taste in fashion or music, or whatever, but as sisters and brothers in Christ, marked as Christ’s own forever and sealed with the Holy Spirit in the waters of new birth.
Do we know who we are? Are we ready to live like we know who we are? Amen.