Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Luke 18:15-30; Philemon 10-18; Proverbs 16:1-17; Isaiah 19-20
The letter to Philemon is an amazing yet enigmatic letter. We find ourselves in the middle of a story, not knowing how Paul and Onesimus met or what happened after Onesimus arrived with his letter. Paul tactfully talks around the situation, leaving us with many questions. The traditional interpretation is that Onesimus, a slave, ran away from his owner, Philemon. He encountered Paul, became a Christian, and is now returning to Philemon as Roman law required. At this time, slaves were regarded as living tools (Aristotle, Politics 1.2.4) and property to be disposed of as the master saw fit. They were non-persons with no legal rights. However, Paul hopes to spare Onesimus the severe punishment typically meted out to runaway slaves.
Many have questioned why Paul did not denounce slavery as immoral and incompatible with Christianity. Elsewhere, he states that there is neither slave nor free in Christ (Colossians 3:11). He could have appealed to Old Testament law allowing runaway slaves to remain free (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). But slavery was so embedded in Roman society and its economy that a call for its abolishment would have been futile and led to Christians being viewed as anti-social and subversive. While Paul does not denounce slavery in general, he demolishes its very standing. He appeals to Philemon to relate to Onesimus as his equal. He appeals to love and compassion, not law.
At the same time, Paul suggests that not punishing Onesimus, and maybe even freeing him, is the right thing to do (v. 8). Paul does not tell Philemon what to do, even though he was entitled to as an apostle (v. 8), but appeals to love. All this was couched in rhetoric and politeness, such as was common in those days. Once this is recognised, the letter shows itself to be a remarkable appeal on behalf of a runaway slave to his master. No other letter like this exists in ancient literature (Pliny wrote a similar one, but it is on behalf of a freeman, not a slave).
Paul expresses how important Onesimus was to him, which he elaborates on in Colossians 4:7-9. As a result, he hopes that Philemon will do more than he asks (v. 21). He hopes that ‘any favour’ (v. 14) he does will not be coerced. The Greek word here also means ‘good deed’ and was used for the greatest good for a slave: being set free. In the next verse, having Onesimus back ‘for good’ literally means ‘forever.’ This introduces the immense change in Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus. They were master and slave, but now they are brothers in Christ for eternity. Any sense of owner-property or inequality has been done away with. Therefore, how could Philemon still consider Onesimus his slave? Paul’s answer is that Philemon should receive Onesimus as if he were Paul himself (v. 17). Paul personally takes on the debt that Onesimus owes, a remarkable statement for the time, showing how much Paul cares for Onesimus. Yet the final decision on how to treat Onesimus is one that Philemon must reach himself.
Paul uses a number of word plays here. Onesimus was a common (and derogatory) slave name that literally meant ‘useful’. In v. 11 Paul uses another Greek word for useful, euchrestos. Its opposite is achrestos, translated ‘useless’ earlier in the verse, and pronounced exactly the same as achristos (Christless). In the past, Onesimus (useful) was useless (achrestos) or without Christ (achristos). Now he is in Christ (en christos) and has become useful (euchrestos) or onesimus. In becoming a Christian, Onesimus has found his true identity: no longer a slave, but a man and a brother, truly useful to Paul, Philemon and others.
The letter is a remarkable example of how to handle a tricky moral dilemma. Legally, Paul was wrong for delaying the return of Onesimus at all. If he suggested freeing Onesimus, should all slaves be freed? If not, how could Paul reconcile allowing Christians to enslave fellow Christians? Rather than address the big issue, addresses this individual relationship. Paul expresses his love and concern for Onesimus, and calls on Philemon to remember his forgiveness. Getting relationships right is just as important as getting doctrine straight, and just as challenging. Paul shows how the gospel should be lived out in everyday relationships.
For us, then, the issue is not so much whether we have slaves, but how we relate to others. Who are the non-persons in our society that we think we are justified in treating differently or ignoring? What about the unborn, the disabled, those with mental problems, those living in poverty, or those dying on their own? Do we treat others differently because they are from a different race, gender, country, professional, or part of town? Or do we relate to them as equal members of the human race? As fellow brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we will live forever?