The epistles of Paul do not really lend themselves to narrative. Paul doesn’t tend to do stories. Oh, he might include a personal anecdote here and there, and he’s never reluctant to tell the tale of his own conversion, but for the most part his letters are exhortations, advice and discourses on theology. Yet the stories are there, hidden under the surface.
Many of his letters were written in response to situations in the communities to which he wrote; and if we squint, we can see the bare outline of what might have happened to prompt his letter. Usually, though, all we get is hints.
Then there’s the Letter to Philemon.
Philemon was a friend of Paul’s living in the city of Colossae in the Roman province of Asia in present-day Turkey. The Christian community in Colossae was a satellite church that grew out of the church Paul had planted in nearby Ephesus.
Philemon seems to have been fairly affluent and the Colossian believers met in his home. He owned a slave named Onesimus, a Greek name meaning “useful”, which is a good name for a competent and reliable servant, if that’s what he was. Only he wasn’t.
We don’t know the circumstances under which Onesimus left his master. Perhaps he ran away because his master was cruel to him. Perhaps he had been stealing from his master and ran away when the theft was discovered. Or perhaps he had heard about Paul and his message and wanted to meet him. Some critics have suggested that he himself had been stolen.
Whether he sought Paul out, or happened to run into him by chance, Onesimus wound up on Paul’s doorstep. In his letter to Philemon, Paul describes himself as a prisoner, and biblical scholars in general believe it was written during his imprisonment in Rome, when he was awaiting trial before the Emperor.
Some scholars have suggested that the letter was written during Paul’s two years of imprisonment in the Palestinian coastal city of Caesarea, prior to his trip to Rome; or possibly an earlier incarceration in Ephesus, when he was jailed for threatening the Tourist Trade. Rome, however, seems more likely; and crowded, bustling Rome would have been a perfect place for a runaway slave like Onesimus to lose himself.
For much of his time in Rome, Paul was under house arrest, able to receive visitors, but not permitted to leave. Under such circumstances, having a servant to act as a “gofer” would have been very helpful to Paul.
Nevertheless, as helpful as Onesimus might be, he still posed a problem for Paul. Under Roman law, Onesimus was another man’s property and Paul could face legal sanctions for harboring a runaway slave. (Well, additional legal sanctions on top of imprisonment). Much of Paul’s legal defense consisted of trying to convince the Emperor that Christians were peaceful and law-abiding. Perhaps more importantly, his friend Philemon would regard it as a betrayal if he ever found out Paul had his slave – and he would inevitably find out. The situation could conceivably cause a schism in the Colossian community with some people taking Philemon’s side and some people taking Paul’s.
We would like Paul to have denounced the slavery; to perhaps have helped smuggle Onesimus out of the reach of Roman law and to have issued an edict that Christians were henceforth prohibited from owning slaves. At very least, he should have insisted on following the Mosaic laws of freeing all slaves every seven years.
No, he didn’t do this; he did something more subtle.
Paul received word that the church in Colossae was having questions about some heretical doctrines which had arisen. The nature of the heresy is irrelevant to this story, but it occasioned Paul to write a letter to the Colossians about the matter. He had a guy named Tychicus carry the letter back – very likely the guy who brought Paul the news from Colossae in the first place – but also had Onesimus accompany the bearer. I don’t know how he managed to talk Onesimus into returning to his master, but Paul could be dang persuasive. Along with the Letter to the Colossians, Paul also gave Onesimus a personal note for Philemon.
The letter starts out with greetings to Philemon and to Apphia and Archippus, members of his household, very likely Philemon’s wife and his son. Paul praises Philemon for his faith and the love he has shown to his fellows. He’s setting Philemon up for the hook.
What comes next is nothing less than a guilt trip, and an exquisitely-constructed one at that.
He makes a plea for Onesimus, whom he calls a son, because he “became my son while I was in chains.” (Philemon 10) He notes that could command this, but would prefer that Philemon follow his request voluntarily, out of love. Not that Paul isn’t above playing the sympathy card, reminding Philemon repeatedly in the letter that he is currently a prisoner and in chains himself. “Formerly he was useless to you…” Paul says, punning on Onesimus’ name, “… but now he has become useful both for you and for me.” (v. 11)
I am sending him — who is my very heart — back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent …. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. (vv. 12-16)
That is the crux of Paul’s argument. Isn’t it better, he asks, to have a brother in Christ and a friend than to have a useless slave?
Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus into his home as he would Paul himself; and says that if he owes Philemon anything – this is where we get the suggestion that Onesimus might have stolen from his master – Paul will repay it personally. “I, Paul am writing this with my own hand.” (v. 19) Paul won’t even mention that, really, Philemon owes his very salvation to Paul’s preaching – except, of course, that he just did; (Paul, you dog, you!)
Paul puts the icing on the cake by telling Philemon to prepare a guest room for him for when he’s released. He doesn’t explicitly say so, but the implication is clear that he will be checking up to see if Philemon does as he asked.
So, did Philemon free his disobedient slave? Did he at least forgive him for running away? The fact that we even have this letter, I think, is evidence that he did. If I had received a letter like that from Paul, the last thing I would want is for anybody else to know I blew him off.
Historically, Paul’s letter to Philemon has been used to justify the practice of slavery, using the reasoning that since Paul didn’t condemn it, it must be permissible, right? There are a number of other places where Paul speaks of the duties of slaves and of the ethical treatment of them. These also have been used to justify slavery, (usually while ignoring the “ethical treatment” part).
But Paul wasn’t interested in reforming society as a whole as much as he was living justly within the existing society. Slavery was an accepted fact of life in Paul’s era and Paul here did not challenge that. Except to leave Philemon with this subversive thought:
Would you rather have a useless slave, or a brother and a friend?