The letter to Philemon and the church in his house is the final authentic letter of Paul’s we have in our New Testament. There is strong scholarly agreement that this is, in fact, one of Paul’s genuine letters. What makes the letter unique is that while it begins by being addressed to a group of people, most of the letter is addressed to Philemon. “Since Paul’s letters were read aloud in the assembly of the congregation, a direct message to one in the presence of all presents an interesting dynamic” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Paul is writing the letter from prison, probably in Ephesus, sometime in the 50s CE.
The letter is occasioned by Onesimus, a fugitive slave from the household of Philemon, who has come to Paul and become a Christian and a helper to Paul in prison. Now he is being returned to Philemon with Paul’s request that he be received as a brother and fellow worker. In making the request, Paul presents himself to the reader and listeners as a man of wit, humor, understated authority, gentle persuasion, and not at all hesitant to call in IOUs. (People’s New Testament Commentary). This is the traditional view of the letter and I will expand on this a bit more. However, before we consider the letter itself, we will consider one other scholarly interpretation of its contents. Assuming slavery to be part of the context of the letter, it might be helpful for us to know something about this institution in that time.
Slavery was a social institution almost universally accepted in the first-century Mediterranean world…. Practically everyone accepted slavery as a given and necessary part of the social and economic order. Slavery meant that one person was owned by another; it was a matter of property and property rights…. Most slaves in the first century had been born as slaves and had a well-defined place in the household and social structure. Many slaves were well-educated and they constituted a significant element of the managerial class…. Slaves could be bought out of slavery by others or could accumulate enough money to purchase their own freedom. (People’s New Testament Commentary). The authors of this commentary note that we should not compare first century slavery to what we know of the slavery of Africans by Europeans. In the first century there was not always a wide gap between slave and free, and most slaves were educated and treated humanely. This does not justify the institution, only gives us a more helpful picture from which to work.
Again, assuming Onesimus to be a slave, here is one picture of his situation. He had, one way or another, deeply angered his owner, feared very serious punishment, and fled, as Roman law allowed, to his master’s friend, for help (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 108). Crossan and Reed go on to argue that Paul’s letter is a plea for Philemon to free Onesimus and to do so of his own free will. They argue that Paul insists on this because it is inconceivable for a Christian to own another Christian.
Here is another take on the situation prompting the letter. I imagine that Onesimus, working for Philemon in Ephesus… had been told to perform services for Paul while continuing to do his master’s business in that town. But in the course of dealing with Paul, he came in time to accept the revelation, and only then confessed that he had been defrauding Philemon. Paul now sends him back to be reconciled with Philemon, hoping that he will be released into continued service with himself. (Gary Wills, What Paul Meant, 112). Wills also notes that the name Onesimus means “useful.” Paul will play on this name in his letter.
So this is a letter written by Paul to a church community, with a focus on words to Philemon about his slave Onesimus. At least one scholar disputes part of that scenario. He argues that Philemon and Onesimus are brothers, and that Paul has dispatched Onesimus to the church meeting in Philemon’s home to serve as his surrogate. Paul seems well aware that the two brothers are estranged, perhaps due to some past wrong-doing or debt, for which Onesimus has failed to compensate Philemon. Knowing that the estrangement threatens Paul’s attempt to minister to Philemon and his congregation, Paul writes a diplomatic letter that presents Onesimus as his proxy. Paul writes that he loves Onesimus, and he insists that Philemon receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul himself. This scholar argues that the language of slavery used in verse 16 is metaphoric. He traces the traditional interpretation of the letter as a reconciliation between master and slave to the fourth century theologian John Chrysostom who was concerned that Christians were being viewed as people who challenged the institution of slavery. Chrysostom used this letter to argue that Paul was not averse to slavery, seeking reconciliation between slave and master. (Chrysostom seems to have missed the fact that Paul argues for the freedom of Onesimus). The Letter to Philemon thus became, in the subsequent history of its interpretation, a legal brief in support of slavery. In early 19th century America, pro-slavery advocates referred to Philemon as “the Pauline mandate,” a biblical sanction of American slavery. This scholar goes on to argue that the letter is about justice and “a radical and perhaps expensive experiment in peacemaking.” Paul “offers to subsidize the cost of justice, because without justice there is no peace, and without peace between brethren there can be no ministry. Unless and until justice is served, God cannot be served.” (all quotes from New Interpreter’s Study Bible).
Whether or not this letter is about a slave or a brother, it is about reconciliation and justice, and about their importance in the ministry of God’s kingdom. That a text focused on justice and reconciliation has been used to perpetuate gross injustice should give us all pause as we read the Bible and as we hear others read and interpret it. We should be suspicious of interpretations of Biblical texts that leave people feeling perpetually left out of God’s dream for the world, left out of God’s love.
Philemon 1-3: Paul, in prison, writes to Philemon, Apphia (Philemon’s wife?) and Archippus, another member of the household and of the Jesus community meeting there. Philemon is a dear friend, literally a loved one. Grace and peace are extended to all.
Philemon 4-7: In contrast to other thanksgiving sections of Paul’s letters, this one shifts into the singular. Paul is addressing Philemon directly here. He is grateful for Philemon’s love for others and for his faith in Jesus Christ. Philemon’s love has been a source of joy and encouragement to Paul and has refreshed the hearts of the saints – what a nice phrase.
Philemon 8-22: Paul has complimented Philemon on being a loving person of faith, and now he wants to build on who he knows Philemon to be to ask Philemon to be even more who he is in Christ. Paul begins by saying he could command Philemon to do the right thing. Most of us know experientially that this method of encouraging right behavior has its limits, though we are often brought back to it as if by default. “Just tell them they need to do this!” Why, when we often find such tactics heavy-handed, are we so willing to resort to them where others are concerned?
So Paul encourages Philemon to live out his faith and love in a new way. Paul is also not above using some sympathy as he appeals to Philemon – Paul is aging and in prison! Paul is making an appeal to Philemon for Onesimus. Paul has led Onesimus to faith while he has been imprisoned. Onesimus, whether a slave or a brother, has wronged Philemon in some way, rendering himself useless, but his life has changed. He can be useful in God’s work, something of concern to both Paul and Philemon. While Paul might have wanted Onesimus to stay with him, he sends him back to Philemon. It seems he wants there to be a reconciliation, and then wants Philemon to send Onesimus back. This seems to be the voluntary good deed he asks of Philemon. Is he asking that Onesimus be given his freedom? Perhaps, and in doing so Philemon will have Onesimus forever as a brother in Christ.
Paul asks that when Onesimus arrives, Philemon welcome his as warmly as if he were welcoming Paul himself. Onesimus is Paul’s own heart (v. 12). Paul willingly takes on whatever debt Onesimus may have owed Philemon. He does this in the abstract, leaving the questions open as to whether there was a debt or not – though there seems to have been some kind of debt owed to Philemon. Whatever it is, Paul offers to repay it, and then not so subtly suggests that whatever the debt might be, and while he is willing to pay it, that debt is nothing compared to having life in Jesus Christ. Philemon owes that new life to Paul. Just as Philemon was know to refresh the hearts of others, so Paul asks him to refresh Paul’s heart in this matter. Paul is asking him to apply his faith and love in a new situation. Paul is convinced that Philemon will respond, another great rhetorical move in this letter. Paul reminds Philemon that he expects to be coming soon himself.
Philemon 23-25: While Paul’s letter is directed toward Philemon, it was addressed to others in Philemon’s faith community and it comes with greetings from a host of others. This situation between Onesimus and Philemon has a public dimension to it. The closing good wishes are to the entire community – the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your (plural) spirit.
This letter demonstrates that our faith and love are to touch every area of life. Reconciled relationships are a sign that God’s Spirit is at work in one’s life. We seek reconciliation and justice as we live in faith and love. This affects our politics and our personal relationships.
The letter also has something to say about how we invite others to live their faith and love more deeply. It takes real faith – in others and in God – to state your case and then trust that whatever happens will be okay. Are you involved in urging an individual or group to make a particular decision? Ask God to give you the wisdom to present your opinion well and the courage to allow others the freedom to decide for themselves. (The Spiritual Formation Bible)