Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Philemon 1-25; Luke 14:25-35
Unlike most of Paul’s other letters, which are written to communities, Philemon is written primarily to a person; and you can see the difference in how Paul writes it. Paul is famous for his ego and his bombastic tone; and yet in this letter to his friend Philemon Paul is humble, praising his friend and refusing to “command him to do his duty”—something which Paul is never too timid to do.
What little background we know about this letter has either been passed down to us through tradition or inferred from its contents. We know nothing of who Philemon was except that he was a man of some important standing and wealth. He must be the owner of some relatively successful business because he is the head of a household and owns slaves. Paul also addresses him as the leader of this church community.
We also know that Onesimus, about whom Paul writes, has been separated from Philemon, having been considered “useless” to him, (though not to Paul). According to tradition, Onesimus is believed to be a slave of Philemon, who has either run away or been sent away. Paul urges Philemon in this letter to receive him back not like a slave owner taking back a slave, but rather as one brother welcoming home another.
After Jesus himself, Paul is a great example of one who “carries the cross” with enthusiasm. Paul introduces himself in this letter as a “prisoner for Christ,” or perhaps even a “prisoner of Christ.” Imagine introducing yourself to someone as a convict; it’s not generally something to brag about! And yet, Paul claims his shameful status with pride, because he knows that he has been imprisoned for his work of spreading the gospel—for being a disciple. Therefore, even his imprisonment is an honor to him, because it is the result of his working towards God’s reign.
This is what it looks like to “hate” one’s family, friends and even life itself: Paul is willing to part with everything that he’s ever held dear on account of following Christ, because he considers God’s reign to be worth so much more than anything else he has. He is willing to endure whatever it takes—isolation, imprisonment, even death—to tell others about what God is doing in the world.
Not only that, he is urging in this letter that Philemon do the same. Philemon, as a slave owner, has every right to claim ownership of Onesimus, to beat him if he has run away, or to sell him to recoup his financial loss for such a “useless” slave. Paul, however, encourages him to waive these rights, which he models by giving up his own.
As a well-known and well-respected apostle, Paul could command Philemon to comply, citing scriptural texts and speaking with the authority of Christ himself, even threatening eternal damnation if he does not comply (all tactics he has used in his other letters!); but Paul does none of these things. Instead, Paul chooses to appeal to Philemon out of the love and affection that they have for each other as friends and as “co-workers” in Christ.
He does this by reminding Philemon of the love he has always shown all the saints and the joy and encouragement he has given to so many including Paul himself. He tells Philemon of the love that has grown between himself and Onesimus, and that he hopes Philemon will share this love with him as well. He even indicates that perhaps this was the reason that Onesimus was separated from him: so that upon his return, Onesimus and Philemon might enjoy a deeper, fuller relationship with one another; not as slave and master, but as brothers in Christ.
The system of slavery was a major institution that supported both Rome’s economy and, no doubt, Philemon’s own wealth; and yet Paul is here urging Philemon to “hate” it, to love Onesimus more than he loves his success or his honor or whatever debt Onesimus might owe him. Paul writes that he expects Philemon to “do even more” than what Paul is asking, perhaps hinting that Philemon ought to free Onesimus from slavery altogether out of Christian love.
If Paul, already burdened with imprisonment and persecution, had decided to leave well enough alone and not get involved in this personal dispute between Philemon and Onesimus, he would be as useless to them as salt that’s lost its flavor. If Philemon’s faith did not compel him to welcome Onesimus home, to forgive him his debts, and perhaps even release him from slavery, his faith would be like bland salt; no matter how much he had, it would add no flavor to his life. What good is the bland salt of a silent Paul or a hard-hearted Philemon to the reign of God? They might as well be buried in the depths of history.
There is one more thing we can take from Paul, Philemon and Onesimus this week. Even though this letter is primarily between Paul and Philemon, we notice how many others are involved. Paul is writing on behalf of others and so that others will hear. This personal matter is being shared with a whole community, both as it is written and as it is read. We are a part of that community as we share these words today. It is a reminder both that the decisions we make affect the whole community, but also that we are not in this alone.
Philemon had to decide how to receive Onesimus, but Apphia and Archippus and the whole congregation were hearing Paul’s words as well, offering their support and advice, perhaps even pressuring him to do the right thing. Though it was Paul who sent the letter, he had the backing of Timothy and Epaphras; Mark and Aristarchus; Demas, Luke and others. The cost of discipleship is steep, but what makes the price worth it is the community we receive in return, and that the cost is sometimes split evenly among that community.
We don’t know how Philemon responded to Paul’s letter, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter to us. The fact that all those people had a hand in either writing or reading that letter and the fact that it was circulated around the Church for decades until it finally became a part of our sacred scripture speaks to the reality that for centuries, people have found in this letter a meaningful example of discipleship.
Though it may not matter to us, Philemon’s response certainly would have been a big deal to Onesimus. His future would be determined by whether he met an indignant slave owner demanding restitution or a forgiving brother offering hospitality. Which he would find waiting for him would be influenced by the faith of Paul, of Philemon, of Apphia and Archippus, and many others. For him, coming home and finding a welcoming community would have been a model of how one man’s “hatred” of his own household and the rules that governed it could give both of them new family in Christ.
That’s how God’s kingdom works. For everything we give up, for everything we hate and turn away from, we are apt to find those things tenfold: “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields” (Matt 19.29). We catch a glimpse of this reality at the font, when, at our baptism, we are received into a broad new family in Christ; we get a foretaste of this reality at the table where we join with not only those gathered here, but with all the saints across space and time around one table to share one heavenly meal.
Yes, Jesus asks much of those of us who would follow him, but Onesimus can testify to how much disciples also receive from Christ.