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Philemon

12.15.2010

Duty requires us to address the most pressing question raised by this book before delving into our general reactions:  how in the world does one pronounce Philemon?  When I first encountered it, I assumed it was ‘FILL-uh-mahn,’ and that’s still how I say it (sounds kind of Cajun in my head, oddly enough).  My wife, ever embarassed of me, has always maintained that it’s ‘figh-LEE-munn,’ and she encourages me to not use my pronunciation in public.  This is remeniscent of our great ‘HA-ba-cook’ / ‘ha-BAK-uk’ debate, but I’ll concede that I’ve probably got less of a leg to stand on when it comes to Philemon.  But, first impressions being the strongest, I’m clinging to ‘FILL-uh-mahn’.

Philemon has always been one of my favorite books, despite being oft overlooked.  This is because, when reading through the Bible on my own for the first time, early in my faith, verses 4-5, 7 really resonated with me and my story:

I always thank my God when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints…Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refeshed the hearts of the saints. (NIV – the translation in which I first read it)

Having had my friends be such a huge influence in bringing me into an active faith in Jesus, I pretty much ignored much of the content of this letter and claimed it as my own because this (rather pro forma) introductory expression of gratitude so aptly captured my own thoughts about my friends.

Perhaps my shallow reading and the (consequently) unwarranted esteem in which I held this book has allowed me to eventually appreciate what it does say and the questions it does raise about our walk with God.  I don’t claim to be a Philemon scholar or anything, but it has never been a forgotten book to me the way, say, Jude or Titus has.

This is a personal letter that Paul wrote from Rome to a believer, Philemon, which was then passed around to Philemon’s friends and neighbors as a guiding text.  It concerns the fate of one Onesimus, a runaway slave of Philemon’s that meets Paul in Rome, becomes a Christian, and submits to Paul’s instruction that he return to his master, whom he has wronged by running away.  Paul urges Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ and to show grace to him regarding his disloyalty.

It’s a bit of a touchy subject in the modern church, as you can imagine.  Here is Paul, the apostle of grace, spreading the message of Jesus, Who came to set us free from slavery to sin and death, and he here acts as the anti-Harriet Tubman by returning a runaway slave to his master.  How do we take this?  There’s no easy answer.

One thing to remember, however, is that slavery in Rome was different in substantial ways from the more modern slavery that we have rightly come to abhor.  Slavery was a legal distinction conferred upon captured enemy warriors, debtors, or orphans.  Freedom could be purchased, which also conveyed free status to one’s children.  Other than distinctive clothing and the like, a slave was not easily distinguished from a freedman. 

Contrast this with modern slavery, which was built upon raids to a foreign land with the express purpose of bringing slaves.  Slavery was for life and covered the slave’s descendents in perpetuity.  Because of the racial element involved in modern slavery, it was almost impossible for a freed slave to blend in or be considered an equal with a citizen, and a culture of discrimination and dehumanization created a sub-class of people born into a world of hatred and oppression.

I don’t mean to make light of Roman slavery.  As Spartacus can attest, it was not all puppies and daffodils for those involved.  However, it was of a piece with the generally brutal existence for almost all people and classes in ancient times.  I think it’s fair to say that ancient slavery, while a product of a fallen world, does not rise (sink?) to the level of distinct evil embodied by its modern counterpart.

One thing that I’ve always had trouble with is the idea that Jesus or Paul would pull punches on touchy social issues (such as gender equality or slavery) to make the gospel more socially relevant or palatable.  I also reject the idea that either (though more likely Paul) would do this subconsciously, having his values and teachings on these subject shaped and limited by the culture in which he lived.  Cultural context is definitely important, but I think these interpretations limit the Holy Spirit’s presence in Biblical texts.  I have to believe that if either Paul or the Spirit hated slavery on principle, this letter to Philemon would not exist in its current form. 

This, I think, has implications that make us confront our own cultural values.  We value equality and meritocracy and liberty, and I think we need to ask whether we have elevated these cultural priorities to an undeserved moral status.  We at least need to ask ourselves what if.  What if the Kingdom of God is compatible with drastically heirarchical relationships?  What if the love of Jesus can be work within and through institutions and constructs we find objectionable?  What if political and economic freedom is not as important to Jesus as it is to us?

I want to restate, because it’s so important, that I’m not including mass subjugation of an entire class of people, ripping them from their homes and treating them as subhuman.  We do not know Onesimus’ background or how he came to be a slave to Philemon, but it’s not unlikely that it’s a situation he was born into or that he may have even entered into voluntarily. 

This is not Paul’s concern.  If it were, it would have come up in the letter.  Rather, Paul is more interested in making sure that Philemon respects Onesimus’ conversion, which acknowledges that he’s a human, equal in the eyes of God, with authority over his own soul.  Paul wants Philemon to demonstrate grace and forgiveness toward Onesimus.  Most importantly, Paul wants the shared love of Christ to become the new defining principle of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.  The legal tie between them pales in importance when compared to the new, spiritual tie.  The freedom of Christ might not lead to economic or political freedom; instead, it makes those questions moot.  In the way that ultimately matters, Onesimus is free.

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