Around 55 AD, from prison, Paul wrote a short letter to his friend and wealthy supporter, Philemon. Philemon seems to have been the lynchpin in the Christian community in Colossae for it is in his house that the church meets – a fact that gives us an indication of Philemon’s social standing within the community.
Paul’s letter to Philemon reveals him at his most vulnerable, most loving and self-effacing, yet also persuasive – in short, at his most skillfully adroit. The letter to Philemon addresses some very sharp tensions, indeed. Paul is asking Philemon to step well beyond the boundaries of his socially conditioned imagination on a particular matter. His is a worldview conditioned by an unconscious acceptance of the institution of slavery.
Paul is making a difficult ask of Philemon. In doing so, he challenges Philemon, tests his fidelity to the cause while at the same time avoids alienating a man upon whom he relies for vital material support in the Colossian mission. This is every parish priest’s nightmare and we could do well to study Paul’s skilfulness in his letter to Philemon.
Most of us know the broad outline of the story. Onesimus, a name that means useful is a runaway slave belonging to Philemon. Runaway slave! Though we live at a distance of 150 years from the legal institution of slavery in the US, we can still viscerally register the danger explicit in the plight of a runaway slave. A slave, to begin with, has no rights and is totally dependent upon the good will of his master. To run away is to forfeit life, or at the very least limb. Onesimus’ good fortune is to have run away to Paul, for whom he has become a much-loved son through baptism.
Paul’s letter to Philemon was often appealed to by the defenders of slavery on the basis that Paul clearly seems to disapprove of run-away slaves. For why else would he have returned Onesimus to Philemon?
Yet, if we read Paul’s words and listen to his tone, his intention behind returning Onesimus is not about restoring Philemon’s property rights. He desires reconciliation. The former slave and slave owner are for Paul – now brothers in Christ. We note Paul skillfully weaving this message.
Playing on the meaning of Onesimus’ name- useful, Paul bolsters his request pointing out that in becoming useful to himself while imprisoned, Onesimus is once again: useful both to you and to me. Paul reminds Philemon that in sending Onesimus back to him, he is actually sending him his own heart, with the implication that he had better treat Onesimus kindly.
I so admire the way Paul navigates the tensions inherent in his request. On the one hand, he shows his love for Philemon. He honors him as his co-worker and there is such love in his tone as he addresses not only Philemon but others in the house church at Colossae. Mindful of his dependence on Philemon’s support for the work in Colossae -for Paul has no wish to offend an important supporter – he subtly links acceptance of Onesimus with acceptance of himself. Hear the words of this wily apostle:
….though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. … I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, 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. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
What is Philemon to do?
This is a heartfelt request of a man Paul honours and loves as a generous co-worker on behalf of a young man Paul has come to love as a son. We see not only the full range of his rhetorical skills employed, we also experience Paul with his heart open. Yet, Paul is still Paul. As supplicant, he offers to make good –charge it to my account– any wrong Philemon feels he has experienced by Onesimus’ absconding. For Paul, supplication can be endured only for so long. He can’t resist reminding Philemon of the order in which things really stand. Just when Philemon might feel he has the whip hand (pun intended), Paul reminds him that when it comes to who is indebted to whom: I say nothing about your owing me even your own self – a less than subtle reminder and then a return once more to smiles as Paul ends with:
Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
The Lectionary ends the section at verse 21 which is a pity for we miss the explicit threat in verse 22 where to add for good measure Paul tells Philemon to prepare a guest room for him:…for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to return to you all.
What has the letter to Philemon to say to us?
This letter represents one of the most skillful and eloquent challenges to the status quo, and as such applies as much to the status quo in our time as it does to that in Paul’s. As we look around us at the world of 2016 we see how we have fallen prey to a delusion that other people’s minds are changed through force of argument. The current deafening cacophony of the culture wars, the hue-and-cry in the battle between left and right result from each side’s inability to hear the other. We are reminded of the Englishman’s version of speaking French – just speak louder.
The right believes that it can vanquish the opposition with insult and blame, stoking the forces of fear and division. While the left marshals the forces of moral superiority in the hope of humiliating its opponents, forcing an admission from them that they are stupid as they slink off to the dunce’s corner. We live in a culture of deafness where ideas and debate fall into the silence of a vacuum created when the importance of forging relationships is so despised.
How do you change someone’s mind when they have yet to glimpse the possibility of another way of viewing the world? Paul’s approach is simple. He does not rely on mounting a protest campaign. He does not threaten nor cajole. Neither does he belittle and humiliate while haughtily parading his moral superiority. He gently reminds Philemon of what they hold in common, i.e the mind of Christ. He invites him to take the next step into a new awareness of what that means, namely that among those made new in Christ the old distinction between slave and free no longer pertains. For Paul the Pharisee, Christ is the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew encounter with a God who delivers all people from bondage.
Paul does not collude with Onesimus’ escape. He recognizes that the consequence of running away has to be faced. Paul does not say: Philemon because there is no such thing as slave or free within the community of those who belong to Christ, your claims on Onesimus are null and void. He models for Philemon what the new order looks like: Philemon, I trust you will enjoy a new relationship with Onesimus like the one I already enjoy with him. Paul’s appeal to his relationship with Philemon is a first step only. One more step is required. Paul knows that persuasion is only effective when it is modeled.
Without the presumption of relationship and the ability to model the behavior you seek from another, whether you issue a command or employ gentle persuasion, neither will achieve the desired goal.
The divisions in our society can only be healed when we reach across the divides recognizing that the old order is ended and we can no longer be content with business as usual. Our baptism requires us to be transformed by a higher set of values than those embraced by the world.
Can we take this to heart? If so, then we know what we have to do as we challenge the prevalence of the spirit of contempt. Contempt for those who disagree with us corrodes the possibly for forging a culture where relationship affords the opportunity for disputation. In last week’s sermon post I wrote about table fellowship providing a context for necessary disputation. Disputation is an important element of a healthy social debate. Creative disputation requires a sense of commonality, a sense of connection afforded by relationship. It’s the current lack of this that results in disputation being simply a chorus of the deaf.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we see how difficult issues can be handled within a presumption of relationship. The absence of relationships across social and political divides prevents us from seeing that we are all in this mess, together. Only through the forging of relationships of mutual concern will we be able to face the difficult tensions of the age; an age which requires us to risk exposure to one another in order to craft a new vision of our common future.