Grace Presbyterian Church
September 4, 2022, Pentecost 13C
One Really Disruptive Letter
There are four books of the Bible, across the Old and New Testaments, that were not in the course of history subdivided into chapters. The lone such example in the OT, the book of the prophet Obadiah, is not wildly different than its longer prophetic siblings. The letters named 2 John and 3 John are likewise similar to the general epistles found towards the end of the New Testament, if not nearly so long and a bit more vague in their address. None of those books appear in the Revised Common Lectionary. Today’s book, however (which does appear in the RCL), is significantly different.
It’s a letter that should not be overlooked, as the book has had an influence out of proportion to its size across the history of both the church universal and the church particular in this country, especially in the US South. That influence was not good, largely because those who interpreted it did so more for convenience than from any genuine desire to learn from it.
You see, this little letter became, in such empires or nations as sanctioned the practice, a primary scriptural justification for the institution of slavery. That list of such nations, of course, includes the USA for about the first two hundred-plus years of its colonial and national history. To be blunt, the only reason you’d have ever heard a sermon on Philemon was in order to support or prop up slavery as “biblical,” frequently (although not exclusively) in the southern part of the country, in churches that separated from their northern fellow churches over slavery – including, yes, Presbyterians.*
The tragedy of it is that this could only be done by emphasizing something that is not in the letter. For all that Paul says in the letter, there is one thing he does not say: “Slavery is wrong.” (He also doesn’t say “slavery is right.”) Neither does he explicitly order Philemon to free the slave Onesimus (although in verse 8 Paul does claim the spiritual authority to do so). And hey, if Paul doesn’t say slavery is wrong, then slavery must be OK, right?
This was not the only such passage of scripture that preachers of the past would have used to justify slavery, but it made this letter damaging all out of proportion to its size, and was also completely contrary to the spirit of the burden that Paul laid upon his “dear friend and coworker” Philemon.
I could have left off some of the preliminary and concluding verses of this chapter in the interest of shortening the reading and focusing on the “important stuff” in this little letter. In the case of this letter, though, the preliminary and concluding verses of the chapter are really part of the “important stuff.” The salutation of this letter names other members of the “church that meets in your house,” specifically “Apphia our sister” and “Archippus our fellow soldier”. This wasn’t a true ‘private’ letter; the whole community is being addressed and included here, and what Paul asks of Philemon is in effect being asked of the entire community, not just the one who actually owns the slave in question.
That brings us to the central character, or ‘object’, of the letter. Onesimus was a slave, this much is clear. Even if there were no other clues about his identity his name itself would be a giveaway; the name ‘Onesimus,’ which translates as ‘useful,’ was not given to a free-born person in the Roman Empire. Would you name your child ‘Useful’? (And yes, this makes a pun of Paul’s words in v. 10 about Onesimus being formerly “useless” but now “useful”.)
Onesimus’s situation is less clear. Most interpreters of this letter believe that Onesimus had run away from his master. Others suggest that possibly Onesimus was guilty of some other wrong against Philemon, maybe some kind of theft or some mistake that had cost Philemon. Aside from the “useless” pun in verse 10, we don’t know what’s going on, but there is some reason Onesimus doesn’t want to return to Philemon and Paul is interceding on his behalf, via letter (he can’t do so in person because he’s in prison, remember). It might be simply that Paul wants Onesimus to work with him, and Onesimus wants that too. It could just be as simple as a slave wanting to be free, maybe even free to do a work God is calling him to do.
As is the case when you only hear one half of a conversation, we can’t be sure about much. But one thing is inescapable; how Paul envisions Onesimus being received by Philemon (and Apphia, Archippus, and the church in his house) is dramatically, life-alteringly, status-threateningly different than the way Onesimus had functioned in Philemon’s household before, and Paul gets that Philemon has to choose, himself, to take this radical step.
Paul is not asking Philemon to readmit Onesimus to his former slave status. A reset, a return to status quo would not require words like these:
- Paul calling Onesimus “my child” “whose father I have become during my imprisonment” (v. 10);
- Paul telling Philemon “I am sending him, my own heart, back to you” (v. 11);
- Paul encouraging Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother … both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16);
- Paul charging Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17).
This isn’t “take him back and I’ll make up your loss and nothing changes,” even if Paul does promise in verse 19 to make up any loss Philemon has sustained due to Onesimus. This is “change everything,” “totally turn things upside down.” And it’s not how any self-respecting Roman citizen treats a slave. If you can figure out how to treat a piece of property with no legal human status as a beloved brother or sister, the way you would treat the man who brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to you, well, you’re evidently cleverer than me.
What Paul asks is not without consequence for Philemon; you didn’t just free your slaves all willy-nilly and get away with it. Besides the social stigma and cultural backlash such an act likely to face, Philemon could face even legal consequences for such treatment of Onesimus, even if he did not technically “free” Onesimus. Anything that had the potential of setting off unrest among slaves or upsetting the social order could be punished by Roman authority; and seeing Onesimus gaining status and acceptance in Philemon’s household could very well provoke such disruption. Paul does not care and engages in monumental arm-twisting to persuade Philemon while in every technical respect leaving the choice in Philemon’s hands (in the context of the community of faith in which Philemon lived and moved; Apphia and Archippus and the church).
An aside: one of the great wrongs of slaveholding societies is their utterly misguided and destructive attitude towards work. Work was, in such societies, beneath the well-off. Work was for other people – those people, whoever that society demeaned with such a label. It seems needful on a Labor Day weekend to note that labor of whatever sort is an honored thing in God’s eyes. Remember the words of Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes, about how there’s really nothing better than to do one’s work and enjoy the fruits of it. The business of exploiting the labor of others for one’s own convenience simply has no place in the kingdom of God, where any human being is a fellow child of God; this is part of what Philemon is now charged to learn.
While I hope there aren’t many today who would seek to restore the discredited practice of using this letter to justify slavery, plenty of forms of oppression fall under the ban if we take this letter seriously. Racism simply cannot stand in the face of a call to love others as beloved siblings in Christ. Any kind of bigotry at all, any claim that the world would be just fine if they would just “stay in their place” or “not rock the boat” or simply stay quiet and out of the way, has no place in the mind of a follower of Christ, no matter how entrenched or enmeshed in our culture such an attitude may be. “That’s just the way it is” might have made a great song for Bruce Hornsby back in the 80s, but it can never be the response of a follower of Christ in the face of any injustice or oppression. (And if you remember the song, even Hornsby wraps that “just the way it is” chorus with the imperative “but don’t you believe it”.)
If it is a coincidence that this scripture happened to fall on a Sunday when the Lord’s Supper is being observed, it is a happy one indeed. The table of the Lord is decidedly non-selective about who is welcomed. Anyone – anyone – who calls upon the name of the Lord is welcomed as beloved brother or sister. And if that fact produces anything other than an “amen” from us, it might be well for us to remember that this radical openness might just be to our benefit as anyone else’s.
We don’t know what Philemon did in response to Paul’s letter. It seems unlikely that such a personal and particular letter would have come into the canon of scripture, even under the Holy Spirit, if Philemon had responded to Onesimus’s return with thirty lashes and an order to “get back to work, Useless.” We do know that later in the century, a bishop named Onesimus served in the city of Ephesus and may have even been responsible for the preservation of many of Paul’s letters. Even if not the same Onesimus, somebody’s slave became a “beloved brother” along the way. And we should note that evidence suggests that in the communities touched by Paul’s preaching, all who were part of that church – rich and poor, male and female, slave and free – were really together in community, just as Paul is instructing Philemon and all the church in his house to be.
But in a way, not knowing the outcome places the burden of answer on us. How do we respond to one who, like Onesimus, of no status or even humanity in the eyes of the world, is set before us as beloved in Christ, one of God’s own children, no matter how vexing it might be to us?
For the call to answer that question, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #36, For the Fruit of All Creation; #300, We Are One in the Spirit