Rev. Seán Charles Martin
Paul’s letter to Philemon is the shortest letter that Paul ever wrote. And while it does not address the great theological themes of his longer letters, themes like justification by faith, or the gifts of the Spirit in the life of the Church, or hope in the promised return of the Lord, the letter to Philemon gives us an intriguing glimpse into the mind of a man who, despite his own serious problems, takes the time and makes the effort to save someone whose difficulties are at least as serious as his own. Paul is in prison as he writes this letter, perhaps his final imprisonment in Rome. Yet his concern is not for himself – indeed, he seems to have thought that he would be released (see verse 22, where he mentions his upcoming plans to visit Philemon) – rather, his concern is for the fate of a young runaway slave named Onesimus.
Background to the letter to Philemon
While, technically, the Letter to Philemon is addressed to an individual (Philemon) and his wife (Apphia), and Archippus (probably their son), the letter is not private correspondence, meant solely for the eyes and ears of these three. Philemon is the owner of the house in which the Christian community meets for their weekly liturgies (verse 2). The house-church they hosted would have heard the letter proclaimed by the letter-bearer (probably Timothy) when the community gathered for its weekly liturgical assembly. That house-church was probably relatively small – 15 or 20 people, at most – and would have comprised other members of Philemon’s household – his extended family, his employees, even his slaves.
The ugliness and brutality of slavery forms the immediate backdrop for this letter. So we have to imagine Philemon’s other slaves listening to Paul plead for the life of this runaway slave, Onesimus. What might their reaction have been upon hearing this letter? Hope that Paul’s words would be persuasive, and the boy’s life would be spared? Resentment over the fact that Onesimus has escaped and has now returned without retribution? Fear that perhaps Philemon will ignore Paul’s plea, and order the boy’s death?
Paul and Philemon have known one another for a long time. In the preface to the letter (verses 1-3), Paul calls Philemon his “co-worker” (synergos), a term usually reserved in the Pauline letters for Paul’s closest friends and associates, like Prisca and Aquila (Romans 16:3), Timothy (Romans 16:21; 1 Thessalonians 3:2), Titus (2 Corinthians 8:23), or Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25). Precisely because Paul and Philemon have enjoyed a long-standing friendship, Paul can make this extraordinary appeal on behalf of Onesimus.
Why has Onesimus run away from his master, Philemon? We will never be able to know; though, given the risks a runaway slave ran (see sidebar), Onesimus’ life as a slave must have been awful. Somehow, Onesimus has made his way to Paul. How did he do it? Again, Paul’s letter gives no indication. But it does seem clear that Onesimus has run to Paul for protection. And this letter is one of the best ways than an imprisoned Paul can protect the runaway slave.
Sidebar: Slavery and the Roman Empire
Slaves constituted perhaps as much as 25% of the population in the Roman Empire. You could become a slave in the Greco-Roman world in a couple of different ways. You could be captured as a prisoner of war, for instance, and sold into slavery. Or your debts could grow so large that the only way to pay them back would be to sell yourself, or even your family members, into slavery. It is impossible to know, nearly 2000 years later, how Onesimus became a slave, though, since Paul calls him “my child” (teknon: v. 10), he may still have been quite young. That might mean that his parents had sold him into slavery. The fact that his name, which means “Useful,” was a common name for slaves in the Greek-speaking world, might indicate that he was actually born into slavery.
To be a slave means that someone else owns your time, your work, your wages, and your energy – your owner even owns your body. In ancient Rome, the lot of a slave seems to have been particularly difficult. Martial, the first-century Latin poet renowned for his witty epigrams, upbraided his friend Rufus for harsh treatment of his enslaved cook:
Esse negas coctum leporem poscisque flagella.
Mauis, Rufe, cocum scindere quam leporem
You say that the rabbit is not well-cooked, and ask for the whip;
Rufus, you would rather carve up your chef than your rabbit.
If a poorly prepared meal could merit a whipping for the one who cooked it, imagine the lot of a slave who tried to run away. In fact, any act of disobedience was dealt with very harshly. Runaway slaves could be put to death. So when Paul writes Philemon, he is very diplomatically, but very definitely, pleading for the life of Onesimus.
What is Paul’s interest in this runaway slave? Once Onesimus runs away, he flees to Paul, and places himself under the apostle’s protection. At some point during his time with Paul, Onesimus becomes a Christian. In fact, Paul is the one who baptizes the young runaway, which is why Paul calls himself Onesimus’ father (v. 10).
Onesimus’ new Christian identity places him in a new relationship with God, of course, but it also places him in a new relationship with other Christians. He is no longer an outsider, but a brother to other members of the Christian community. And we must remember that the churches of the Pauline mission prided themselves on welcoming slaves and masters, men and women, people who were born Jewish and people who were not. Indeed, one of the antiphons sung at baptismal liturgies in the churches of the Pauline mission celebrated this inclusivity: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Religious identity and social realities
But what happens when religious ideals clash with social realities? Pauline Christians may well have welcomed slaves and masters alike to their worship, and set aside social distinctions based on nationality, class, and gender, but once the liturgy was concluded and people returned to their homes, those social realities reasserted themselves. And we must remember that those social distinctions between persons of different nationalities, or between persons of different classes, or between persons of different genders were reinforced by Roman law itself, which gave some people – Romans, men, and slaveholders – more rights than those who were neither Roman, nor male, nor slaveholders.
Which is to say that Onesimus’ new-found status as a Christian would not help him one bit, should he return to his master, Philemon. His life would have been at terrible risk. He certainly would have been tortured, and probably would have been killed. He needed protection. He needed a personal plea from Paul.
Paul’s appeal to Philemon: verses 8-17
Paul’s language here is extraordinarily diplomatic. He knows he can command Philemon to take back the runaway (verse 8), but he would rather Philemon do so out of love (agape). Love for whom? Paul? Certainly, but also love for Onesimus himself, since now Onesimus belongs to the Christian community that Philemon has already shown himself to love so dearly (verse 5).
In characterizing Onesimus, Paul’s language is full of contrasts:
||formerly, he was useless to you
but now, he is indeed useful, both to you and to me
||I am sending him … to you
I wanted to keep him with me
||he was separated from you for a while
so that you might have him back forever
||no longer as a slave
but … a beloved brother
Paul’s language of contrast serves two purposes. On the one hand, Paul acknowledges the loss Philemon has suffered, once Onesimus ran away. From the slaveholder’s point of view, the one who was supposed to be useful (remember, that’s what Onesimus’ name means in Greek) has turned out to be useless. The slave is gone. The negative economic impact on the slaveholder cannot be underestimated. And Paul recognizes that.
But Paul’s language of contrasts is also meant to lead Philemon to acknowledge that a transformation has occurred in Onesimus. Because the runaway is now a Christian, he has a supernatural bond with his master. Onesimus has become Philemon’s brother. You do not kill your brother, even if an unjust law might permit it. And Paul wants Philemon to recognize that.
Affection and Restitution: verses 17-19
Paul’s plea in this section takes two forms. Since he himself is now Onesimus’ spiritual father, he wants Philemon to receive the runaway as though Onesimus were Paul himself. In effect, Paul is saying, “If you’re my friend – and you are, there’s no doubt about it – you’ll take this kid back, because he’s like a son to me.”
The other form Paul’s plea takes here is the promise of restitution. Paul will pay Philemon back for whatever loss the slaveholder has incurred. And he is quite definite about it: “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it” (verse 19). This raises an interesting question. Did Onesimus steal from his master in the course of escaping from him? Is the boy not just a runaway, but a thief also? It is certainly possible. If that is the case, then Paul is balancing the budget, so to speak. Philemon has incurred a loss, and Paul is rectifying the account.
It is also possible, however, that Paul is even willing to pay Philemon for the value of his (former) slave. This would have been an extraordinary gesture on Paul’s part, and an extraordinary expenditure of money as well. But it would have secured Onesimus’ life, since he would then have a new owner (Paul), and his former owner (Philemon) would no longer have any power over him.
Mutual indebtedness: verses 19-21
Yet even as Paul assumes the debt that Onesimus owes to Philemon, he reminds Philemon of the debt that he owes to Paul: “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self” (verse 19). It seems clear here that Paul was the one who was responsible for bringing Philemon into the household of faith. From Paul’s point of view, this is a debt that can never be repaid, since what is at stake in Philemon’s debt to Paul is eternal life itself.
Here we encounter the heart of Paul’s plea to Philemon. In the light of what Philemon owes Paul, what Onesimus owes Philemon seems very paltry in comparison. Paul’s diplomatic but pointed reminder of Philemon’s own enormous debt is reminiscent of the parable told by Jesus in Matthew 18:23-35, in which a king forgives one servant an astronomical debt – ten thousand talents, the equivalent of 150 years of wages – who then in turn refuses to write off a trivial sum of one hundred denarii owed him by another servant. The king denounces the first servant: “You wicked slave! …Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:32, 33). Paul’s language is less threatening, but the point cannot have been lost on Philemon.
A promised visit and the example of Paul’s companions: verses 22-24
The body of the letter concludes with another request: “Prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you” (verse 22). It seems cheeky, by our standards, to ask for guest accommodations on top of everything else Paul is demanding of Philemon. Yet we must recall that in the first century – long before there were super-highways and hotel chains – travelers depended upon the hospitality of a network of friends and associates as they made their way across country. Paul is asking from Philemon no more than any traveler would have asked from a friend. There may be, however, the slightest hint that this upcoming visit will also include an enquiry after the well-being of Onesimus. The boy had better be okay.
The greetings that conclude the letter (verse 23-24) demonstrate that, even though Paul is imprisoned, he is not isolated. He has Epaphras, whom he calls a “fellow prisoner,” and with whom he is confined, but he also has, presumably as visitors and care-givers, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke – all of whom, like Philemon, are “fellow workers” (synergoi). Early Christians took very seriously the command of the Lord to visit those in prison (Matthew 25:36). Such visits were not merely social. Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke would have been bringing food, drink, and clothing for Paul and Epaphras – for the two would certainly not have been fed or clothed by the prison officials! Paul’s visitors are quite literally his life-savers. There is a lesson for Philemon here too. Just as Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke preserve Paul from death, so should Philemon preserve Onesimus from death.
Was Paul’s plea successful?
The fact that the letter was preserved argues that Philemon heard Paul’s entreaty, took his message to heart, and spared the life of Onesimus. There are legends – probably impossible to verify – that Onesimus later became a bishop in Colossae. The legends assume that Paul’s words did not go unheeded, and that the runaway slave was not only accepted back into the community from which he had escaped, but that later in his life, he rose to a position of leadership.
While we (rightfully) see slavery today as morally repugnant, many people in the first century seem to have been blind to the moral problem of slavery, given how widespread it was. Furthermore, it is important to note that nowhere in the letter to Philemon does Paul raise a principled objection to the very institution of slavery. It is probably unrealistic on our part to expect Paul to have objected to the institution of slavery. He was enmeshed his culture, just as we are enmeshed in ours. Furthermore, his own eschatological expectations – that Lord was returning any day now, and that the world as we presently experience it will be completely and utterly transformed – led him away from a concern with the problem of constructing a just society, one that recognizes the God-given dignity and value of every human person, irrespective of their nationality, language, class, or gender.
In reading the letter to Philemon, we will need to grapple with the question of our own moral blindness. What practices in our world will subsequent generations look back on and wonder, “How could they have allowed such a thing to go on?”