Proper 23      September 4, 2016


This morning I just have to talk about the letter to Philemon – there is so much in there. It is one of the shortest and most obscure books of the Bible. It is also the only private practical letter we have: addressed to an individual, not a whole church, on a particular concrete issue, not just general teachings.

It is interesting for the glimpse it gives us as to how Paul operated as a leader. In fact I used to use this passage when I taught seminarians, to reflect on how a pastor can exercise authority. And it shows us what some of Paul’s central teachings look like when they are applied to a concrete situation.

To make sense of this letter, we have to get the background story straight, a little domestic drama, unfolding around three main characters.

First, there is Philemon. The most obvious thing about him is that he is a wealthy man, the head of a large household, which would have included family, hangers-on, and also slaves, necessary to provide the labour to run a large house in those days before electricity. Maybe not quite as grand as Downton Abbey, but that kind of thing!

But there is a second thing to know about Philemon: he is a Christian. He was converted by Paul, and has become a leader in the church. Paul refers to him as a coworker, a partner, a brother. He talks about the way in which Philemon’s faith serves as an inspiration to others.

The second character in our drama is Onesimus, one of Philemon’s household slaves. We probably have to imagine Onesimus as quite young, little more than a child; perhaps he is 15 or so. He was probably born in Philemon’s household. His name, Onesimus, means “useful” = in other words, it is a typical slave’s name, one that sums up his whole identity and purpose in life: to be a good worker, to be useful to his master.

Onesimus has run away. Of course we can only speculate on his motives. There is no indication that he has been mistreated; at least, Paul does not call Philemon out on mistreating him. Whatever his motives, running away was a difficult and dangerous undertaking. First of all, the chances of being caught were high. The Roman Empire was everywhere: where do you run to? If caught and returned to his master, he could typically expect brutal punishment. And even if he is not caught, again, what kind of life is he running away to? Where is he going to find a home and a job that will keep him secure and sheltered and half as well fed as he was in Philemon’s house?

Many slaves, clearly, were content with their lot. We can only presume that as a young man coming of age Onesimus does not wish to be a slave, that he sees his life as having more meaning than simply being useful for Philemon, and so he is looking for his freedom – a motive which I’m sure we would all agree is reason enough to cut loose.

What is particularly interesting is that having run away, he goes to Paul. Clearly he knows Paul from Paul’s time in Philemon’s house; clearly he has come to trust him. Presumably he has felt respected as a person, more than just a slave, by the way Paul treated him. But I would hazard a guess that perhaps he heard something in the message Paul preached as well, something that taught him that he was a beloved child of God, with a dignity and worth of his own. Probably he was baptised along with the rest of Philemon’s household. And now he has been putting together what Paul taught him of the gospel with his own life as a slave, and he is reaching his own conclusions. Is it farfetched to speculate that in running away he may be trying to claim the Christian freedom of his baptism?

So he comes to Paul, and finds him in prison, perhaps in nearby Ephesus. Paul receives him, talks to him, listens to him, counsels him. Paul “becomes his father” in those conversations, and begins to spell out with Onesimus what the gospel means for his life. What it means that he is a beloved child of God caught in the social structure of slavery. What his eternal value and destiny is in God’s eyes – but also what his practical options are.

All of this is background to the letter we have in our hands. Out of those conversations he had with Onesimus emerges the plan. He sends him back to Philemon together with this cover letter – and the letter, how Paul handles the situation, is most interesting.

We might expect him to denounce slavery, to tell Philemon that slavery is wrong and that he should release all his slaves. In fact Paul is often faulted for not doing just that, as one more proof that he is a hopeless reactionary with nothing to teach us. Of course, one might ask what this kind of letter would have accomplished. It might have boosted Paul’s credibility with us on the slavery issue, but whether it would have concretely helped Onesimus or Philemon is another question.

Instead, he does something quite different. He does not make general pronouncements on the morality of slavery. Nor does he tell Philemon what he has to do. Instead, he reminds Philemon of how the three of them (Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus) relate in the light of the gospel. He reminds him that he, Paul, and Philemon are brothers in the gospel, partners and coworkers, and that they came to this place because Paul was Philemon’s “father in the gospel”: Philemon owes the new life he found in the gospel to Paul’s teaching. He tells him that Onesimus, similarly, is his child in God, because Paul has in the same way brought the gospel to him. He is therefore returning Onesimus to him not as a slave, but as a brother in the gospel and the church. The gospel has reoriented all these relationships away from the paternalistic model of master and slave, to a new reality of brotherhood based on love. Having reminded Philemon of all this, he now says to him: I’m not going to tell you what to do; I’m going to trust you to do the right thing.

I trust you to do the right thing – that is the radical heart of this letter right there. It is radical because it is the concrete expression of one of Paul’s core teachings. Let me quote another passage of Paul, from Romans:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

This is core Pauline theology, an insight he took over directly from the teachings of Jesus: that as Christians we are not subject to a whole list of commandments we have to obey, mindlessly ticking off the boxes. We are simply called to love one another, to treat each other as brothers and sisters should, and that God trusts us to figure out what that looks like in day to day life. The letter to Philemon gives us one example of what this principle looks like. It means for Paul, as a leader, not simply telling Philemon what to do. Rather he lets Philemon work it out for himself. In this way he is letting Philemon be a mature Christian, one who does the right thing by his own choice, not just because he is told to.

Because what Paul, and Jesus before him, realized, was that there is a problem with the whole idea of the law, with the idea of regulating morality by commandment. The problem is, quite simply, that it continues the system of dominance. It is all in a good cause, sure; the commandments are telling us how to live healthy lives. But as long as they are simply commandments coming to us from the outside, we have not made them our own.

Yes, Paul could command Philemon to release Onesimus, and he would probably achieve his goal. But the cost would be to continue the whole system of dominance. He would now be the master, and Philemon would be his slave. He prefers to cut through the whole system, to treat Philemon and Onesimus equally as brothers.

This goal colours the whole manner in which Paul approaches Philemon. “Though I am bold enough to command you to do your duty,” he says, “yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love . . . I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” Paul wants to help Onesimus, by convincing Philemon to treat him right; but at the same time, he wants Philemon to make the decision freely in love, because only that would truly build up Philemon in Christian responsibility. It is a style of leadership that demands a courageous and imaginative giving up of control.

What Paul is modelling for us here is the best of Christian leadership, because he is modelling for us precisely the attitude that God has towards us. God is certainly powerful enough to force our obedience; God could, presumably, take away our freedom, and bend our wills to comply with his. But God seems uninterested in this kind of obedience. God wants our obedience, yes, but not at any cost; God wants our free and willing obedience, an obedience that stems from understanding and consent, from hearts that beat to the rhythm of God’s will – an obedience that stems from love. That is why our religion is based on faith, that willing acceptance in love, and not on obedience and law.

What Paul models for us, even in his approach to a very concrete and difficult problem, is the very heart of the gospel. In so doing, he challenges us to live this heart of the gospel, to let it be not just an abstract principle, but the very form of the way we treat one another.