If ever a letter gives the impression of our reading someone’s private mail, it surely is the letter to Philemon. It is addressed to a wealthy Christian, perhaps living in Colossae, maybe with his wife, Apphia, and son, Archippus. While this is the last and shortest letter in the body of Pauline works, (only 335 words in the Greek text), it is a theological giant in its challenge to Philemon and to ourselves.
It would have been foolish of Paul in those days to tackle the issue of slavery head on. The Roman Empire was built on that institution. Paul, from his imprisonment, more likely in Ephesus than Rome, sends the letter with a runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul has recognised in prison from a former visit to the house of Philemon whom Paul had converted and baptised. Onesimus has also been baptised by Paul in his imprisonment.
Slave or free
Onesimus, whose name is Greek for ‘useful’, has proved useful to Paul in prison, and Paul desires his return. This would entail Philemon giving Onesimus his freedom. As the letter was expected to be read in the context of the gathering of the house church at the home of Philemon, there would be many slaves with a great interest in the consequence of Paul’s request. The basis of the request is that through baptism, Christians become brothers and sisters to one another and children of the one God. In this new relationship there is no longer room for the master and slave relationship.
Paul has the right to demand the release of Onesimus, a right based on the debt Philemon has towards the one who brought him to faith. But Paul prefers persuasion and uses every technique of persuasion available to him. He reminds Philemon that ‘you owe me your very life’ (in Christ). ‘I will repay any debt Onesimus owes you’ (Onesimus may well have stolen money for his flight, or possibly the reference is to the loss of service involved). He had certainly not been ‘useful’ to Philemon. Even the request to prepare the guest room for a future visit (far more likely with an imprisonment in nearby Ephesus than distant Rome) contains the veiled comment, ‘By the way, I am coming to check up on you!’
Love made him do it
Philemon would have had to read the letter several times (as we do) to get what Paul was asking of him. I suspect that he was not too pleased as it would require a very large change in his life and status. Baptism does create new relationships across the whole spectrum of life. Paul, an authority figure, appeals to Philemon out of love; such a good model for those in positions of authority! A command would have been just according to the social protocol of their relationship. Love made Paul take the approach that he had personally experienced with the person of Jesus, the Christ ‘who loved me and gave himself up for me’ (Gal 2:20).
References to love, agape, occur in various forms in vv.1, 5, 7, 9, and 16. Paul’s social status and role made him bold enough to command, but love made him bolder to appeal the case of an allegedly runaway slave. Paul took a great risk in writing this letter. Philemon was a prominent citizen and Christian, yet ‘a dear friend and co-worker.’ He was completely free to heed or not to heed Paul’s command or appeal. The legal system, the popular opinion, and social conventions were all in Philemon’s favour. An authoritarian imposition by Paul would have created a disturbing social conflict within the church. Paul’s choice of a love-appeal was a wise move.
It raises questions
Was mercy and forgiveness so difficult and important that Paul had to send this personal letter with Onesimus to Philemon? Why did Paul include others such as the church in Philemon’s house? Why did this personal letter not stay private? The real thing that matters is the courage to realise and actualise what Paul described as the ‘new creation’. The text has to question us. The great dichotomies in human relationships that Paul identified and strove to overcome are listed in Gal 3:28. ‘For those baptised into Jesus Christ, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female; all of you are one in Jesus Christ.’ The modern equivalents of these divisions are still very much with us in all our institutions and practices.
What happened afterwards?
The end of the story may well have been that Onesimus was returned to Paul as a helper. Ignatius, an early Church father, tells of an Onesimus who became bishop of Ephesus, and compiled an early collection of Paul’s letters. We could easily imagine Onesimus slipping his own little personal letter in among the other works of Paul. This would explain why such a personal letter made it into the collection, but it is all very tenuous. It is one of those wonderful examples of stories that could be and should be true!
The pictures on this page show members of the World Council of Churches in an historical meeting, the first to welcome the Roman Catholic Church in an official capacity. They closed their 2005 meeting with a ‘sending service’—a walk up the Areopagus, the scene of Paul’s famous debate with the philosophers of Athens.
Paul’s speech on the ‘unknown god’ appears in Acts 17:18-32.
The pictures were taken by Wel-com board member, Julia Stuart.