You make an end of them in their sleep;
the next morning they are like the changing grass,
Which at dawn springs up anew,
but by evening wilts and fades.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Philemon 9–10, 12–17
September 4, 2022
The letter to Philemon is the Pauline work most people find dissatisfying and would like to change. But we do so at our peril.
Philemon is a slaveholder and both he and his slave Onesimus were converted by St. Paul. Paul is now in prison and Onesimus was so moved by Paul’s plight that he ran away from Philemon to assist him. This put Paul in a difficult position. He is harboring an escaped slave. He also does not want “law-abiding” Romans to think Christianity is a lawless religion. He therefore sends Onesimus back to Philemon.
We would like Paul to denounce slavery and call for its elimination. Slavery, however, was such a part of his society and he might not have been able to conceive of a world without it. Also, he has already said that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) These are very provocative indeed dangerous words and would have made him and indeed all Christians suspect during a slave rebellion. He could not count on Romans understanding his intention.
If denunciation and a call for slavery to be eliminated was unlikely, then more clarity as to what Paul expected the future to bring would be appreciated at least by we moderns. It is held that although Paul did not have a timetable for the Lord’s return, he and many other Christians did not think that it would be long. We saw this in the “Letter to the Hebrews.” Many Jewish Christians were losing hope because Jesus had not come. Even if Paul thought that a revolution was possible, most scholars think that fomenting a revolution would distract from his prime task of preaching the Gospel.
We must again face the reality that Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament authors are not our contemporaries, and they will not fit into our models of thought. Yet we must also remember that this is not just an interesting historical artifact, but a message inspired by God. What does he wish to tell us?
The letter to Philemon is only 25 verses long and I suggest you read the whole letter twice.
The first verses (1–7) are rhetorical flourishes to flatter Philemon. It seems shameless to us but would have been more common then and Paul is a master at it. Verses 23 to 25 are housekeeping. The key section then is from 8 to 22.
Paul says that he could command Philemon as his spiritual leader to let Onesimus stay with him but wishes to appeal to his better nature. Paul pulls out all the stops:
I rather urge you out of love,
being as I am, Paul, an old man,
and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus.
I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus,
whose father I have become in my imprisonment,
He then will show his respect for Philemon’s culture and learning by employing a literary turn of phrase:
who was once useless to you
but is now useful to both you and me.
The name means useful. He will also use a cognate form in verse 20 for “profit.
I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.
I should have liked to retain him for myself,
so that he might serve me on your behalf
in my imprisonment for the gospel
Onesimus’ use to Philemon would be that, in serving Paul the apostle, he would be doing so in Philemon’s name and thus he would reap the spiritual benefits.
Paul also is trying not to break the law. It would be unlikely that Philemon would act against him, but he does not want Christians to get the reputation for law breaking:
But I did not want to do anything without your consent,
so that the good you do
might not be forced but voluntary.
Notice how the tone is changing. Yes, he clearly wants consent not only for his protection and Onesimus’ safety, but that Philemon’s actions may be done out of love.
Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while,
that you might have him back forever,
no longer as a slave but more than a slave,
a brother, beloved especially to me,
but even more so to you,
as a man and in the Lord.
Away from you is a euphemism for escaped, Paul is aware and respectful of the social realities of his time, but he is also firm on the primacy of Christian obligation. Despite Roman law which defined a slave as a person who could not refuse the command of a master, Paul is proclaiming that he is before all else a brother because of Christ. The humanity of Onesimus because like us all he is a child of God is deeper than Roman law and custom.
So if you regard me as a partner,
welcome him as you would me.
Paul assumes that he is a significant person in Philemon’s world and that he wants to be a partner. For this honor, he is asking that Onesimus not to be punished with the usual harsh penalties given to runaway slaves.
Paul is assuming that Philemon will listen to him.
With trust in your compliance, I write to you,
knowing that you will do even more than I say
Indeed, the word compliance also means obedience. Paul is concerned not only for Onesimus’ safety but for Philemon’s soul. He may not be leading a slave revolt, but he clearly is showing the incompatibility of slavery and the Christian life., Christianity is based on love and whatever limits the ability to love—to choose the good of the other—is the enemy of Jesus. If Philemon cannot see the humanity of Onesimus, he cannot love him, and this denies the reality of Jesus.
We do not have chattel slavery anymore and we are officially equal, but not everyone is treated equally. The rich and famous, even the rich and heinous, are often given preference and honor that offends the Christian sensibility.
Whether we are closer to Onesimus or Philemon, we must ask ourselves if we see each other, if we love each other, if we are truly useful to each other.