A Slave Named Profitable
Tradition has it that the Apostle Paul wrote this personal letter to Philemon, a slave holder and leader the church in Colossae in the year 61. At the time when Paul was living under house arrest in Rome. Most of the letters of the Apostle Paul were composed with an eye to their being publicly read – although Philemon is considered a private letter about a specific matter I think that it too was written to be read aloud in a setting of worship. Paul is not primarily concerned with articulating a right Christological formulation or the correct theological or eschatological perspective. First there is an introduction.
Paul, 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.
Now we find what it is exactly that Paul is asking of Philemon?
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.
Reading between the lines we think we can see a back story emerging. One of Philemon’s slaves, named Onesimus, after defrauding his master, fled to Rome. It is conjectured that Onesimus had come in contact with Paul when he had traveled with his master Philemon to Ephesus but for what ever reason once in Rome he found his way to where Paul was incarcerated. We are left to imagine how that relationship developed. Onesimus became useful to Paul given that he was under house arrest. Ultimately Paul writes that Onesimus had become his spiritual son and except for the fact that his friend and supporter Philemon had a prior claim on the slave he would have kept him in his service. Adding to that, Onesimus, being a convert to Christianity, was obliged to return and make restitution to his master. According to the law, the master of a runaway slave might treat him exactly as he pleased. When retaken, a slave was usually branded on the forehead, maimed, or forced to fight with wild beasts. With a rare tact and utmost delicacy Paul asks that Philemon to not only pardon Onesimus but to receive him as Philemon would receive Paul himself. The outcome of Paul’s request is lost to history but according to ecclesiastical tradition Onesimus lives to become the Bishop of Beraea.
The principals in this story are: a slave; a thief, a run away, a servant, a convert, a disciple, a son, a repentant, a spiritual leader and Bishop… an Apostle, although imprisoned, a catcher in the rye, a spiritual tutor, mentor and father, a beneficiary and an advocate for unmerited favor and for forgiveness of debts, and the third a slave holder, who is asked to acknowledge one who had stolen from him and then become a runaway as a brother in Christ.
As I’ve read the letter and become aware that a literal translation of the name Onesimus, is “profitable” and how in the eleventh verse the text makes a play on words pointing how Onesimus was useless to Philemon in Colessea while quite useful to Paul in Rome. I couldn’t help wonder whether it really is an elaborate metaphor for what the church is to be about. I felt a bit better about that when I learned that because the subject matter of the letter is “so very singular” F. C. Baur, a nineteenth century German Biblical scholar, concluded that it is likely that the letter is a “Christian romance serving to convey a genuine Christian idea.” Another scholar suggests that Onesimus’ status of slave was first mentioned in a sermon by Origen in the early days of the church. It is only in the 16th verse that the question of Onesimus’ encumbered status is raised and that could well be interpreted as being a situation of indebtedness to Philemon. Yet another theory is that Philemon and Onesimus are brothers both by blood and by faith but who had become estranged and for Paul love meant going out on a limb and advocating for reconciliation.
One crucial level of our interpretation of Philemon requires us to deal with our recent, collective past; a past in which biblical sanction of slavery and segregation and rancid racism was simply taken for granted by most of our predecessors in the faith and bolstered by how this letter was read. After all, if Paul seems adamant about returning a runaway slave to his owner, shouldn’t we?
Re-visiting Philemon should remind us that we too are heirs of such historical disasters, remind us that our past is not just our past but our present and our future. It is not enough to preach what Paul might have meant in Philemon all that time ago. We must confront how Philemon was actually preached from pulpits not that long ago. And in reminding us about this text’s past misinterpretation, well could be instructive to us in our need to be a bit humble in how we read and interpret Scripture today. Yes, God is certainly present in our reading of these texts, but we know well that our own sinfulness all too often have driven us to read a text in a way that affirms our prejudices and assumptions, even the cruelest ones we hold. We are no more immune to this tendency than those who have come before us. How does how we interpret the Gospel change not just our minds but how we relate to one another? Love might mean going out on a limb and advocating for people who are powerless in systems which inherently resist and resent their values being subverted.
Again, we have to ask ourselves what exactly is it that Paul is asking Philemon to do? And, why it is important in the life of the church? Paul is not primarily concerned with theology or eschatology. First and foremost he cares for these communities of faith because they are seeds of the resurrection, sites where the resurrected life can already flourish, places of resistance to an empire that would place us in rank according to social status. Is the supposed slavery of Onesimus, the status of being a doulos, a slave, in the Greek, a metaphor for someone who is captive to an addiction or an emotional loss or to an ethnic prejudice, someone who needs to hear the good news of absolution and spiritual emancipation? Were you Philemon how would you have received Paul’s request to offer such grace to one from whom you are estranged or with whom you have issues? And imagine Paul writing such a letter and making such a request of another. Such intercession wasn’t without cost. Paul writes: “if he owes you anything, charge it to my account.”
In this story, who are you – Onesimus, a runaway indebted and out of relationship to one important in his life? Or maybe you are Philemon who sees himself as the victim, the one defrauded, being asked to offer grace instead of justice? Or maybe you are Paul who is in the position of making such a request of another, prevailing on them to offer reconciliation instead of perpetuating a grudge? Can you imagine what such transformations of relationships and status might look like in our own community of faith? Can you imagine how the generosity and grace of this letter could change our world?