First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 16

William Loader

Pentecost 16:  4 September  Philemon 1-21

This little treasure is a window on the complex world of Paul and the systems of power which controlled it. Onesimus (whose name means "useful"!) had been a slave in the household of Philemon, who must have been reasonably well off. Onesimus had escaped and somehow found contact with Paul, probably during his time of imprisonment, where he helped him, but more importantly became a convert to the faith. Philemon has also become a Christian. Paul has obviously encouraged Onesimus to go back to Philemon, a potentially dangerous thing for him to do. He could face brutal punishment. It was a rough world. Slaves were things. Just contemplate Onesimus's name! Fancy calling a person "useful"! He's just a "thing".

Paul has to dance according to a complex set of rhythms. On the one hand, we have the world of honourable and dishonourable activity. It would be very easy for Paul to offend Philemon or bring him embarrassment. Would Philemon cope with relating to Onesimus as a person, and not just as a slave? What would his community and household think of him for doing so? Paul even promises to pay off any debt there may be or make up for any wrong (v. 18). But the accounting entailed more than money. It included shame, reputation, sense of control, status, social expectations, the stability of law and order in household and governance and much more

Paul is in danger of alienating Philemon. Yet Paul is also anxious that Philemon sees what he ought to do. Paul comes very close to being offensive when he writes that he is telling Philemon his duty (v. 8) and reminds him that Philemon is in debt to him (v. 19), not financially, but possibly because he is a convert of Paul's or his mission . Paul also reminds Philemon of his seniority (either in age or faith - v10). All this could easily raise Philemon's hackles.

So Paul is treading a very fine line and risks getting himself offside with Philemon. Notice how he tries, not very subtly, to affirm the positive side with Philemon. Within the usual letter pattern of greetings (1-3) and giving thanks for and praising the addressee (4-7), Paul highlights Philemon's goodness and generosity (5,7), while reminding him that this of course belongs to being in Christ (6). Paul affirms Philemon's goodness because he wants to reinforce it and then base his request on it. Paul knows the social rules. He must send Onesimus back and he should not presume that Philemon would be happy for Onesimus to stay with him. That would infringe Philemon's rights (13-14).

How can he get Philemon to agree with his request? In v 15 he fantasises that perhaps Onesimus's leaving was so that he might return eventually and stay. That might not convince a hard headed master of a household who knew what slaves were like. In v 11 he plays on the meaning of the name, Onesimus, in acknowledging that Onesimus had been far from "useful" to Philemon, but pleads that now he can be "useful" to both Philemon and Paul. Will Philemon be persuaded? Perhaps the fact that we have the letter indicates that he was.

Paul's careful footwork serves a purpose and reflects a value. Onesimus is a person. Paul has been served by him, but does not see him as an impersonal slave. He is a person, as much loved by God and beloved to Paul, as anyone else. Paul is not trying to abolish slavery. He shows little inclination to engage in social reform. Such social analysis, common in our day, was rare in those days. But he does embody values, which if let loose will transform society. Onesimus is now Philemon's brother, not just his slave (v. 16). As a person Onesimus is as deserving of as much respect as Paul, himself (v. 17). It is not just a case of doing a favour for someone who has become Paul's buddy. It is a matter of how we view other human beings.

Paul's appeal is on the basis of love (v. 8). Love and faith are what matter (v. 5) and what bring Paul joy (v. 7). Ultimately that love flows from the being of God, embodied in the life of Christ and his continuing presence. That love is also the reason why Paul is prepared to risk a potentially embarrassing initiative and write this letter to advocate for Onesimus. Paul's complex footwork reveals how much he is aware that his initiative could fall flat on its face. But he does not retreat into the comfortable. There may have been ways in which he could have avoided the issue. After all, Onesimus was only a slave - only a slave?! Paul could never think like that.

Love means sometimes going out on a limb and advocating for people who are powerless in systems which inherently resist and resent their values being subverted. The task is still immense today - wherever people are reduced through systems, prejudices and governments to items, useful or useless, convenient or inconvenient.

Gospel: Pentecost 16: 4 September Luke 14:25-33
Return to Home Page