Among the readings selected for this coming Sunday is almost the whole of a letter written by the apostle Paul around the year AD 60. It is the Letter to Philemon, which Paul wrote while he was in prison. The letter reveals something essential about human relationships in the early Christian age: regardless of differences in social status, Christians were expected to treat one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Unlike Paul’s other letters in the New Testament, the Letter to Philemon (pronounced Fy-lee′-mon) is a personal letter. One might wonder why it was included at all, since there is none of the sermonizing or theology you find in his other letters to the Romans or to the church in Corinth. The letter is addressed to Philemon, a well-off convert to Christianity, whose house has become a meeting place for worshipping Christians. Like all personal letters, it tells us something about the relationship between the two parties – Paul obviously thinks highly of Philemon, and praises him for sharing the faith with others, especially, as Paul puts it, in “refreshing the saints”, a term which could mean financial support. The term “saints” here simply means believers.
It’s a letter which is as well known for what it doesn’t say as for what it does say. Unfortunately, we don’t have a copy of Philemon’s reply, if he ever wrote one. And because it describes persons and events without being fully explicit about them, there is a temptation for us, when we read the letter, to make various assumptions about them. However, some speculation may help to unlock one or two of the letter’s mysteries.
Paul is in prison – this happened more than once during the apostle’s lifetime. He doesn’t say where. Perhaps Rome, but more likely Asia Minor, possibly Colossae or Ephesus. While in prison Paul meets a young man called Onesimus, who happens to be Philemon’s slave, and Paul is writing to Philemon about him. We don’t know how or why Onesimus met Paul. This has generated a great deal of speculation from scholars. Was Onesimus in prison with Paul? That’s unlikely, since slaves were imprisoned in separate areas to Roman citizens, of which Paul was one. Was Onesimus on the run from Philemon? Perhaps, but why? Had he stolen money? What wrong had he done to Philemon? We don’t know. All we know is that in the letter Paul offers to repay Philemon any debt, monetary or otherwise, that Onesimus owes Philemon.
It is probable that Onesimus seeks Paul out in the first place. It may be to ask Paul a favor, to intercede on his behalf with his master. There are other examples of non-Christian letters of the time which do this. Perhaps Onesimus was not much good as a slave – incompetent, unhappy, bungling – and if bought in the market place, for Philemon a bad investment. Whatever the reason, Onesimus has probably heard Paul spoken of highly at his master’s house and decides to seek him out. As it turns out, he gets more than he bargains for, and when he and Paul meet, Paul converts Onesimus to the Christian faith, probably baptizing him in prison. The two forge a strong spiritual friendship and, instead of returning immediately to his master, Onesimus becomes one of Paul’s helpers during Paul’s incarceration. In Paul’s eyes, Onesimus has found his true calling. He even jokes about this to Philemon, saying “formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful”. There is a pun in the Greek – the name Onesimus’ means “useful.” In this passage, Paul uses the Greek synonym euchrēstos, meaning useful, and contrasts it with achrēstos, meaning useless. There is a further pun in that achrēstos would sound like achristos, meaning “without Christ”.
The style of the letter is light, almost playful, something the English translation can’t quite convey. There is good reason for the light touch. Paul is going to ask Philemon for a favor, and not just any favor. He is going to ask Philemon to receive his slave back, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.
This will be difficult for Philemon, and Paul wouldn’t ask him if he didn’t think he was capable of doing it. But what an enormous pressure now on Philemon. To accede to Paul’s request to take Onesimus back as a brother in Christ rather than as a slave would have created enormous resentment and jealousy among Philemon’s other slaves. Is that what Paul intends? Perhaps Paul is hinting at manumission, where a slave buys out his owner and becomes a freedman, while continuing to work for his master. That’s unlikely, as usually a slave would spend several years saving up to do so, and we know that Onesimus is a young man. Some people wonder why Paul doesn’t condemn slavery in principle, but at the time slavery was thought of very differently than today. Slaves accounted for as much as a third of the population and were integral to the economy of the Roman Empire. They worked in building, mining and cleaning as well as in administration and commerce.
Paul helpfully offers to settle whatever debt Onesimus owes Philemon, despite Paul being broke and in prison. But Paul is so impressed with his newest convert, and the work he has done for Paul, that he feels strongly that for Onesimus to return now to his former role as slave would be a huge mistake. His new life, initiated through baptism, marks a change not only in his own being but in his relations with others. That is what Paul is saying. We are all one in Christ, and so Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were welcoming Paul. The grace given to Philemon in his own conversion he is now being called upon to exercise in charity towards Onesimus.
We sometimes think that God’s love is given to us unconditionally, without expectation of any return, yet I can’t help but see in this situation an expectation of a return for grace given. There is a cost to discipleship – for Philemon, it initially took the form of monetary support. Now Paul is making a new demand, by interposing between master and slave. He is seeking equality in Christ for Onesimus, and by doing so is highlighting the fact that discipleship sometimes means overturning the rules of normal, functioning society.
It’s a shame we don’t know the outcome, but we can surmise that the retaining of the letter points to a favorable response from Philemon, exemplifying his obedience to Paul, his trusting in God, and his possession of the essential Christian quality of humility. I also wonder if he came to see that the favor he was being asked to provide was actually a blessing in disguise, for him and for his church community.
There is a coda to this letter. It’s a tantalising fact that has come down the centuries which we very much want to be true, but cannot know for certain. It’s this: that in AD 110, Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, was traveling to Rome where he would be martyred. Along the way, he was met by representatives of several churches who brought him food and drink and encouraged him in the faith. In return he gave them letters to take back to their churches. One of his visitors was someone called Onesimus, the bishop of Ephesus, of whom Ignatius speaks in glowing terms. Was this the same Onesimus, by this time 70 years old, who met Paul in prison all those years ago? If so, it would have been a remarkable testimony to the power of the new Christian movement to liberate and promote even former slaves to positions of authority and pastoral care.
In the end, however, we have to say we don’t know. But it could explain why the letter to Philemon, so brief and so personal, was kept all that time, to eventually find its rightful place among the other writings of the New Testament.
With love and blessings