1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet 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. 10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16no 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. 17So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. 23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
The Letter of Paul to Philemon is a little treasure. It is a tiny window on the complex world of first century Christianity and the systems of power in which it swam. It also gives us a glimpse of the very human side of Paul witnessing to the high demands which Christianity made on him and makes upon us all.
In that day slavery was an excepted institution. What we know of slavery in the 21st Century bares little likeness to either the secular slavery of the first century Roman empire. Slaves weren’t considered people. They weren’t allowed to marry and any children born to them could be bartered or sold as any other possession by their master. or of the Hebraic concept which was much more humane. This was vastly different than the much more limited and humane form of slavery as practiced by the Jews. Paul writes to the Ephesians that slaves were to obey their master.
Onesimus the reason for the letter being written. Apparently he had run away to hide in the big city of Rome after in some manner defrauding his master Philemon. Were he to be apprehended he would be physically brutalized and possibly face the death penalty. As providence would have it Onesimus met the aging Paul who was imprisoned and discovered that they had something in common – Philemon.
The letter doesn’t say how Onesimus came in contact with Paul. We do know that he had repented of his crime, embraced the Christian faith and had become invaluable to Paul. Paul admits to considering simply keeping the run away slave with him but decided that to do that without Philemon’s consent would be wrong.
Despite the possible consequences, Paul’s counsels the young runaway that Christian ethics required that he return to his outraged master and seek forgiveness. Paul pens a masterpiece of delicate humor saturated with the confidence of Christian faith as he sends this young man back to face the music. Most clearly Onesimus had become quite dear to Paul, so much so he refers to the run away slave as his son. He says that parting with him was like parting with his ‘very heart’.
Philemon, a gentile and likely a Roman citizen, was a prominent citizen of Colossae and a leading member of the Church and whose conversion from pagan religion to Christianity was accounted to Paul. A precious bond of brotherhood in the faith had evidently formed between the two of them. The letter Paul writes to Philemon makes it clear that the current situation was putting their relationship to the test.
Paul is anxious that Philemon sees what he ought to do. Paul comes very close to being offensive when he instructs Philemon of his duty and reminds him that he is in debt to Paul, not financially, but possibly because he is a convert of Paul’s mission Any part of this could easily alienate Philemon. Paul treads a very fine line and risks his relationship with Philemon. He tries, not very subtly, to affirm the positive side with Philemon. Paul knows the social rules. He must send Onesimus back and to assume that Philemon would be happy to have Onesimus return to assist Paul would infringe on Philemon’s rights.
Paul goes out on a slim limb when he writes this masterpiece of tact. It would be very easy for him to offend or embarrass Philemon. How would Philemon cope with relating to Onesimus as a person and not just as a slave named useful? What would members of his household and his neighbors think of him for doing so? Paul even promises to pay off any debt there may be or make up for any wrong. But there was more at stake than money. Shame, reputation, sense of control, status, social expectations, the stability of the household and issues of law and order were all in play.
How can he get Philemon to agree with his request? Paul uses a play on words: The name, “Onesimus” means translates into English as “useful”. So Paul, using a synonym writes: Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. It is unlikely that Philemon laughed at this but it would have been noticed. Through it, Paul points not only to the value that Onesimus has to Philemon, but now how valuable he is to both Paul and the Kingdom of God. Certainly, this is not the slave that Philemon remembered. He had been transformed by Christ.
That Onesimus is identified as the traveling companion of Tychicus and as a trust worthy and dear brother in Colossians gives us some confidence that Philemon was persuaded to both receive him as a brother in Christ but also released him to return to assist Paul.
Paul breathes the spirit of Christ and of equality within the Christian community. into this letter. He does not directly attack slavery, for this is something the Christian communities of the first century were in no position to do. Yet Paul, by presenting Onesimus as “brother, beloved…to me, but even more so to you” voiced the revolutionary idea that would break down worldly barriers of division “in the Lord.” 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 argues that Onesimus is now Philemon’s brother, not just his slave. As a person Onesimus is as deserving of as much respect as Paul himself. It is not just a case of doing a favor for someone who has become Paul’s companion and friend. It is a matter of how we view other human beings.
Paul’s invitation to Philemon to give up on getting even and see in a useless tool a person loved by God. It is a case study in tactfulness. Without a hint of insincere flattery, we read how deeply Paul cares for Philemon a “dear friend and coworker.” It is obvious that love and trust preceded Paul’s request. Is it obvious to us that before we challenge anyone in like fashion, we need to pave the way with genuine encouragement?
We find in Philemon an invitation to extend forgiveness based on this same principle of giving up on getting even. We don’t see Paul using his power and prestige to influence Philemon. We see him appealing “on the basis of love”. That love flows from God embodied in the life of Christ and Christ’s continuing presence. That love is also the reason why Paul was prepared to risk a potentially embarrassing initiative and write this letter to advocate for Onesimus. Paul’s complex footwork reveals how much he was aware that his initiative could fall flat on its face. But he does not fall back into his comfort zone. There may have been ways in which he could have avoided the issue. After all, Onesimus was only a slave – only a slave?! Could Paul ever think like that?
Love sometimes requires going out on a limb and advocating for people who are powerless in systems which resist and resent their values being subverted. The task is still immense and continues today – wherever human beings are reduced through systems, prejudices and governments to things, useless or useful.