Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved fellow worker
Philemon 1 (ESV)
I have tended to avoid Philemon. It’s a New Testament book that always seemed out of place, as though I were eavesdropping on a private conversation. Of course the truth is we are eavesdropping. Philemon is a short letter (if you have not read it, or not read it recently, I encourage you to do so as it’s only 25 verses) from the apostle Paul to Philemon, the owner of the slave Onesimus, who ran away. The original language is second-person-singular throughout the entire letter (with two exceptions in verses 22 and 25). In other words, this really is a private conversation between the apostle Paul and Philemon. At the same time when Paul wrote Colossians, he took the time to address a seemingly incidental and insignificant personal issue. But when we look into the cultural norms of the day, we discover what Paul is addressing is anything but insignificant.
(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel,
Philemon 11-13 (ESV)
Believe it or not, Paul is joking in verse 11. Onesimus literally means useful, but a slave that runs away is not useful for anything (he or she is useless). Now, however, Onesimus has become a follower of Christ, returned to his owner, and is ready to submit to Philemon’s direction (in other words, he is useful). It’s important to recognize that the apostle Paul sending Onesimus back to Philemon should in no way be interpreted as Paul condoning slave labour. Instead Paul was accepting the reality of the situation. Slavery was a cultural norm when this letter was written. So much so that a large portion of the labour force was comprised of slaves. If every slave everywhere just got up and walked away much the population would have died of starvation since there would be very few left to work the farms. The solution to slavery wasn’t as simple as setting all the slaves free, it required a significant cultural shift; Paul knew this. We know Paul wanted to free Onesimus because in verse 13 he tells Philemon he would have been glad to keep him, but Roman law was clear that slaves were not people they were property and Paul couldn’t steal from Philemon. Yet we find Paul was concerned for Onesimus because the law allowed Philemon nearly free reign on the punishment he could bring upon a runaway slave.
We don’t know the circumstances surrounding Onesimus’s decision to flee. While slavery was fairly commonplace in this society, slaves were often better off than those who were free and poor. Slaves had shelter, clothing, and food; more than what many who struggled would have had. But they were still slaves (property, not people). To escape Onesimus traveled well over 1000 km from Colosse to Rome, quite a feat in an era where a sail boat was the fastest mode of transportation. With a population approaching nearly one million Rome would be an ideal city for a fleeing slave to hide. It’s probably safe to say that Onesimus had successfully escaped slavery. Given all this his encounter with the apostle Paul really comes across as more divine than coincidence. Add to this Onesimus willingly returning to his owner speaks volumes of his transformation and character.
As little as our knowledge is of Onesimus, we also don’t really know a lot about Philemon or his relationship with the apostle Paul. We can infer that Philemon became a follower of Christ through Paul’s work1; this no doubt worked in Paul’s favour when making a request of Philemon. Now both he (Philemon) and Onesimus had something in common: Paul was the instrument that led them into a relationship with Christ. With such commonality it’s no wonder Paul referred to him as Philemon’s brother. Regardless of Paul’s perspective, we can see he was not expecting Philemon to give Onesimus a completely free pass. It’s clear from the letter that Onesimus probably owed Philemon something2 (perhaps money or property taken before fleeing); Paul insisted that he, himself, would settle the account upon his visit. Unlike his joke earlier in the letter, the text here is one of sincerity. When we look at the interaction between Paul and Philemon and Paul and Onesimus it becomes clear that the issue of paramount importance to Paul was the relationship between owner and slave, between Philemon and Onesimus. This isn’t the first time Paul focused on relationships. To the church in Corinth he wrote:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-2, 13 (ESV)
Paul recognized that things (whether wealth and servants, or freedom) were inconsequential to modelling Jesus’s love God, love others3 ethos. He wanted both Philemon and Onesimus to see worth in the other. Jesus, also, often focused on individual relationship. Whether a private conversation with a Pharisee4 or helping an outsider5 or giving financial advice6; Jesus always made time to guide others into what it means to love God, so they could in turn love others the same. In the book of Philemon we see Paul doing the very same.
There’s evidence that Onesimus did become a free person and went on to be a leader in the church. We can’t know for sure, the evidence is circumstantial, but just imagine for a moment a slave becoming guiding force in the early church because his owner was asked (not ordered) to model God’s love.
On its surface the book of Philemon appears to be about an employee who stole something and his boss being asked by a mutual friend to forgive him. In fact it is nothing so insignificant, it is God’s blueprint for tackling complex constructs in society. When I see church organizations confronting morality gaps head-on through protests and propaganda I can’t help but stop and wonder if that’s really the approach Jesus would take. When I read Philemon I’m forced to believe that it’s not. Putting aside beliefs of whether certain choices and lifestyles are right or wrong, Paul’s solution to navigating complexities in society such as slavery was not freeing all the slaves, it was changing the hearts of the slave owners7.