Tale of Two Slaves Jamie Maciejewski
Philemon 1-25 October 21, 2018
Sometimes when I read the Bible, I come across a passage that is truly beautiful and inspiring, but I struggle to grasp what it really means. Maybe you have that experience sometimes, too. Perhaps we don't fully understand it, or maybe what it's asking of us is very hard. Either way, the beautiful passage stays stuck at the level of theory.
One example of this is 1 Corinthians 13, the exquisite passage on love. It's often read at weddings. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor 13:4-5 NRSV). It makes our hearts sing! And then it runs smack into reality. All the many times I've been irritable or impatient with my husband, the countless times I've insisted on my own way these past 30 years... It's clear this passage too often gets stuck at the level of theory for me.
Another similarly inspiring passage Paul wrote talks about new life in Christ. “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Col. 3:11 NIV)
The words just soar! No divisions, no distinctions. Christ is all. Christ is in all! It's radical and inspiring! It's also kind-of theoretical. I mean, what does it mean, anyway? Is Paul arguing to abolish all hierarchies of power in society? All class distinctions?
We are so fortunate the Holy Spirit made sure that the little book of Philemon was included in our scriptures. In Philemon we hear a very real, very human, very messy story that works out those inspiring and somewhat theoretical words. It's a story that helps us understand what Paul's theory looks like in real life. We might say it's a story where the rubber of theology meets the messy road of life.
To really grasp this messiness, we need to back up and take a look at the institution of slavery in the first century Roman world. As you might imagine, it's not a pretty picture. Slavery is the economic engine of society. Slaves fill every menial labor role you can think of. Planting and picking crops, tending children, cooking food, digging ditches, tutoring students, scrubbing floors. Agricultural laborers were treated especially badly; the stunted and deformed skeletons that have been found testify to serious malnutrition and cruel working conditions.
One source writes, “Slaves were the lowest class of society and even freed criminals had more rights. Slaves had no rights at all... They could not create...families, nor could they own property... The entire Roman state and cultural apparatus was...built on the exploitation of one part of the population to provide for the other part.” (https://www.ancient.eu/article/629/slavery-in-the-roman-world/) Slaves were property, plain and simple. This is the backdrop to our text today.
The letter we read this morning is addressed to Philemon, a leading Christian in the city of Colossae. With his family, he hosts a church in his home. Paul calls him a dear friend, coworker, brother and partner. He describes Philemon as loving other Christians, refreshing the hearts of many believers, and trusting in Jesus. And, Philemon is a slaveholder. He owns at least one other human being. It's quite likely he owns more than one.
Onesimus is probably young. He's the property of Philemon, and he's apparently run away from his master. We also get the idea that he's somehow wronged Philemon; perhaps he stole from him or damaged some property when he escaped.
When he runs away, Onesimus winds up where Paul is and visits him in prison. We don't know how he got there. Maybe he went looking for Paul, since he knew he was a friend of his master's, hoping Paul would intervene on his behalf. Maybe it was a Holy Spirit “accident!” We don't know.
Paul says Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” has become very useful to him. Some writers suggest Onesimus is probably providing the imprisoned Paul with food and other help. This may be true, but the way Paul writes, Onesimus means far more to him than simple practical help.
One thing we know is that Onesimus gives his life to Christ as a result of Paul's influence. Paul refers to him as “my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment” (v. 10).
Paul's become a dad! Paul doesn't say he is “like” a father. He doesn't say he has “adopted” a child. Paul says he has fathered Onesimus. “Begotten” is the word. Paul considers Onesimus his own flesh and blood. He calls him “my own heart” (v. 12). This enslaved young runaway has become very, very dear to Paul.
So it must be painful to both Paul and Onesimus to send him back to his master. Runaway slaves have never been treated well. Philemon has a right to punish him as he sees fit. He can even sell him as a “worthless” slave, in which case any new master will know his history as a runaway and thief, and treat him accordingly. His future may be quite harsh.
It's here that we find the intersection of theology and reality. Paul swings into the role of advocate for Onesimus. Paul stands on the side of this disobedient slave as he works out the meaning of there being “no longer slave or free.”
Listen to what Paul urges: Welcome him back as you would welcome me – a much loved brother. If he owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. (Oh, by the way, Philemon, I don't need to remind you that you owe me your very self, do I?) And do it from your heart, Philemon! Don't do it grudgingly; don't do it because I tell you to.
Let's not pretend Paul is asking a small favor. What he is asking is huge! Put yourself in Philemon's shoes. Onesimus is not his only slave. If he forgives this one and doesn't hold him accountable, the social order in his household is likely to disintegrate. What happens when his other slaves see you can get away with disobeying the master? I predict a rash of conversions among Philemon's slaves, just so you can get set free! This could conceivably lead to Philemon needing to release every slave he has. The economic and social implications are enormous.
We don't know what Philemon's response to Paul's request is. Does he ignore it? Get angry and tell Paul to butt out? Or does he free Philemon? Maybe even send him back to continue helping Paul? We don't know. However, it seems a pretty good bet the letter wouldn't have survived to become part of our Bible if he had ripped it up and rejected it.
In the sermon title I promised you a tale of two slaves. Let me introduce you to the second. His name is Paul. It's one of his favorite ways to refer to himself.
“From Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for God's good news.” (Rom. 1:1 CEB) Paul knows he has been purchased by Jesus. At a terrible price. He belongs fully and solely to Christ, and in a number of places he calls himself a slave of Christ Jesus.
One author says this: “...'slave' is a title of great humility; it expressed Paul's sense of personal insignificance, without rights of his own, having been purchased to belong to Christ.” (John Stott, Romans)
Paul is in good company. The apostles Peter, James and Jude also refer to themselves as Christ's slaves. Each one knew that Jesus meant for their lives to take the shape of their master's life. And what shape was that?
“Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8 CEB)
Jesus came into our world in the form of a slave, to people who neither knew him or loved him. And Jesus asks us to be like him. It's the call of every Christ-follower – to be a slave of Christ Jesus and servant of humans.
Paul, the slave of Christ Jesus, speaks to Philemon, his brother, a man he clearly loves. He commends him for his love for Christ and the believers. Now he urges him to see how much more good he can do by extending his Christian witness to the slave Onesimus. Paul wants Philemon to see Onesimus with Kingdom-of-God eyes, a family member who is so important for kingdom purposes.
Paul tells us: “Anyone who was a slave when they were called by the Lord has the status of being the Lord's free person.” That's Onesimus. “In the same way, anyone who was a free person when they were called is Christ's slave.” That's Paul; that's Philemon; that's me. (1 Cor. 7:22 CEB)
Jesus asks us to re-examine every relationship we have, every person we encounter, and see each one through a new set of glasses. The clerk at the grocery store. The lower-level employee at my job. The workers who harvest the food we buy. The custodian who cleans my child's school. The flagger who stops my car.
When we put on our new glasses, hierarchies and social divisions disappear. Every single person is dear – either a much-loved family member, or else a person Jesus is just crazy to see become one.
The tale of our two slaves, Onesimus and Paul, is almost done, but not before a postscript! It seems that about 40 years or so after Paul wrote this letter, the church in Ephesus had a leader whose name will sound familiar to you. Bishop Onesimus served the Ephesian church around the turn to the second century. No one can be certain if this is our Onesimus, but I love to think that it is.
Bishop Onesimus would have been intimately involved in collecting the letters that became part of the New Testament. Perhaps that is why, out of all the dozens and dozens of personal letters the Apostle Paul must have written, one in particular survived: the letter to Philemon. All because Paul put on new glasses and chose to see one slave as a person valuable to Christ instead of someone on the lowest rung of society.
Oh, what a family we are a part of! And, oh, what a Master we slaves have! You are very dear to me, my sisters and brothers.