By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
September 8, 2019
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Luke 14: 25-33
The Letter to Philemon has been a highly influential book of the Bible when it comes to discussion of civil and social policy. It’s not too hard to figure out why. This is a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a friend of his whom Paul converted to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. This friend, Philemon, had slaves.
It was quite common especially for well-off gentiles to have a few slaves. One of Philemon’s slaves was a fellow named Onesimus. He and Paul have become friends while Paul is imprisoned in Ephesus. There’s a general assumption that Onesimus is an escaped slave who has been captured and is to be returned to his owner. Many scholars assume that Onesimus actually stole money from his master when he escaped, because Paul tells Philemon that if Onesimus owes him anything, Paul himself will repay it.
Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus has been converted to Christianity. Paul is imploring Philemon that he should no longer treat Onesimus like a slave, and especially a bad runaway slave, but rather to forgive his past indiscretions and treat him as a brother in Christ.
History and scripture tell us that Christian slaves might have been considered slaves by their masters, but in the church slaves were considered equal to their masters. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes in Galatians (3:28). There are two lessons at least to be drawn from this. One is that the church represented a radical reordering of society, a restructuring that tore down human hierarchical models. The other is that the church apparently took slavery for granted as a societal norm, and apparently did not, in this early period, advocate for freeing the slaves.
This is important to understand. From the beginning to the end of the Bible slavery was a societal norm. In the Hebrew Bible, Jews were ordered to treat their slaves well, but they weren’t told outright that slavery was wrong. Abraham and Sara have a female slave named Hagar who becomes the mother of Abraham’s first
child, Ishmael. This is something we’d consider reprehensible today and we become angry when we hear of American slave owners who forced themselves on slave women. But there’s no word spoken against what Abraham did in the Bible.
In the gospels we find Jesus healing the beloved slave of a Roman military commander, without saying a word about whether slavery itself was good or bad. From beginning to end, the Bible does not outright condemn slavery and in fact treats it as the norm.
But you could make the case that as Paul writes to Philemon, he is sending a strong implicit message that Philemon should free Onesimus. Paul writes that he’d like it if Onesimus could be Paul’s fellow worker in spreading the Gospel, but he doesn’t feel right asking that of Philemon without his permission. In other words, Paul wants Philemon to free Onesimus so that he can work with Paul. He pushes gently but firmly on this, and concludes by saying, “Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
Paul is the absolute master at guilting people into doing the right thing. Listen to Paul saying, “Gosh, I sure hope you’ll do what I ask! I won’t even bring up the fact that you owe me your very soul.” Ouch! While Paul is not directly saying, “I order you to free Onesimus,” he is sure making it difficult for Philemon to do anything that is less than freeing Onesimus.
But again, we are inferring that Paul is saying, “Free Onesimus.” He never directly says it, he only implies it. Here in this letter, we find evidence of implicit grace. Paul is saying that at bare minimum forgiving Onesimus and treating him as a brother is the right thing to do—but he’s also saying that if you think through the full implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the full implications of what it means that we are all slaves of Christ Jesus but that we are all also freed in Christ Jesus, if we think through the full implications of the love and grace and mercy of God, then Philemon will realize he must do even more than what Paul says, and free Onesimus.
It seems Philemon took the hint. Paul mentions Onesimus again as a fellow worker in the Letter to the Colossians—remember that’s exactly what he asked that Philemon allow. And history tells us that Onesimus became the bishop of Ephesus. From runaway slave to Christian bishop. Wow. That’s an incredible story of grace in itself.
We of course take it for granted that slavery is by definition unchristian. It seems self-evident to us today. But it wasn’t self-evident to Gentiles at the time of Paul or to many Americans during the period of slavery. In fact, pro-slavery Christians in the South used the Letter to Philemon actually to prove their point that slavery is not condemned in Scripture. After all, they said, Paul doesn’t directly say, “Free Onesimus.” Therefore, they argued, since slavery is not directly condemned in the Bible, we must assume it is condoned. We don’t have a right to think beyond the actual words of the Bible. We don’t have a right to do even more than what is said.
This same line of reasoning colored the way German Lutherans under Hitler understood their relationship to the government. At that time, they subscribed to the “Two Realms” school of theology. After all, they said, Jesus never outright condemned Rome; and Paul advised respect for the rule of law in the Letter to the Romans. Lutherans concluded that therefore there was a spiritual realm, over which Jesus was clearly Lord; but rulers, whether good or bad, were appointed to their posts by God and the church should leave them alone to do their job. In other words the church should stay in its lane.
This whole line of biblical interpretation was quite selective in its reading of Scripture. If believers are to leave politics and government alone, why did the Israelite slaves rebel against Pharaoh in Egypt? Why did all the prophets—all of them—speaking on behalf of God call down judgment on the people and governments of Judah and Israel for their injustice to the poor and their faithlessness to God? Why was Jesus executed by the Roman government? Why was it that the early Christians would only call Jesus Lord, which meant they wouldn’t call Caesar “Lord,” and as a consequence experienced persecution, torture and death? And for that matter, why was Paul himself imprisoned and finally executed by the Roman emperor Nero? The very act of preaching the gospel put Paul at odds with the government.
No, neither Jesus nor Paul explicitly say, “Resist an unjust government.” But the whole arc of Biblical history implies it with irresistible force.
Back to slavery: while Southern slaveowners made the argument that if slavery is not outright condemned, it must be condoned, their slaves read and heard the Bible entirely differently. They were inspired by the story of the Exodus, how God led the Israelites out of slavery and into freedom. “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land. Tell ol’ Pharaoh ,’Let my people go.’”
And white abolitionists read the Letter to Philemon differently than slaveowners: they saw the clear message that in Christ, slaves are the equal of their masters; they picked up Paul’s heavy inference that Philemon should free his slave; and they extrapolated from that that clearly, slavery could not by any stretch of the imagination be truly Christian. Based on the implications of the Exodus, the teachings of Jesus, and the words of Paul, they developed a clear Christian mandate that all society must be changed and slavery must be ended. That is certainly doing even more than what is said.
There’s a debate in Constitutional Law that has relevance to how we interpret the Bible. Is the Constitution a living document; or as the late Justice Antonin Scalia once bluntly put it, is it a “dead” document? In other words, in interpreting the Constitution, this two hundred and thirty year old document, is it arrogant to read into it things it doesn’t directly say—like the condemnation of segregated schools or a right to privacy? Keep in mind that Scalia didn’t mean, for instance, that segregation was right. He only meant that since it was never addressed directly in the Constitution, you shouldn’t infer that it’s there. It’s up to legislature to pass laws in places where the Constitution is silent. You shouldn’t do more than what is said.
On the other hand there are those who believe the Constitution is a living document, meaning that it must be interpreted in the light of present need. They believe that in modern cases judges are in a position to infer Constitutional rights and ideas that are not directly spoken of in the document itself. From that perspective, you have to do more than what is said, because things change.
My guess is that when it comes to the Constitution, the answer is someplace in the middle of those two ideas.
But this is also a very relevant debate for Christians. For some, the Bible a “dead” document. All we have are the words handed to us in Scripture. We are arrogant—to the point of assuming the authority of God–to infer ideas that are not directly addressed in the Bible.
On the other hand, we have those who consider the Bible a “living” document. Of course the Bible is the foundation for everything we believe, and we look to it as the basis for what we do and how we are to live. But God gave us brains and also the Holy Spirit lives in us; and so we are called to look at the broader implications of Scripture in our always changing world. We are called to do even more than what is said.
We in the Reformed tradition, the tradition derived from Calvin and Knox, tend to fall on the side of “The Bible is a living document.” That’s why we have over the course of history written several documents called Confessions that seek to interpret what the Gospel is calling us to do in times of historical crisis. We are taught to read the Bible with the newspaper, or our internet news feed, by its side.
That means we believe that God calls us to think—to use our heads and our hearts to understand what we as Christians are called to believe and do in an age of cars, global climate change, iPhones, and mocha frappachinos, none of which—especially mocha frappachinos—could have been imagined by the Biblical writers. We have to study scripture with eyes of faith and take the risk of inferring what God is calling us to do, based on what we know about God through the revelation of Jesus Christ and the teachings of scripture.
And that means in many cases making sure you have a sense of the whole Bible, not just a few verses of it. A common thing people try to do is proof text—that is to say, find a Bible passage or a single line of Scripture that backs up what you believe. The problem with that is that one could just as easily find a Bible passage or a single line of Scripture that says exactly the opposite thing. Does God want us to kill our enemies? It’s easy to find plenty of Scriptures, especially in the Hebrew Bible, which maintain it is God’s will to kill. On the other hand, Jesus teaches us “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and even to be angry at your sister or brother is as bad as murder.
One person will say that the right to arm oneself is clearly testified in Scripture—look at the wars of the Israelites and how Jesus at one point tells his disciples that if they don’t have a sword, then sell their cloak and buy one (Luke 22:36). To which someone else will respond that after Peter pulled a sword to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told him to put it away—that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26: 52).
And so on and so forth.
What standards, then are we to use when figuring out how to put on Jesus’ sandals when we’re wearing our fancy Justin boots? What it finally comes down to, for us Christians, is grace. What is the most loving thing to do? What is the most humble thing to do? What serves the good especially of those who are poor, vulnerable, weak, and dependent? This takes hard thought and prayer, and sometimes it seems easier just to view the Bible as a dead document, and my job is just to obey it as literally as possible and stay as far away as I can from the gray areas of life. Or else do what someone in authority tells me is the Christian thing to do. Just check your brain at the door, and never dare to do more than what is asked.
Except that’s not what God expects of us. God actually wants us to figure out for ourselves how best to live the Christian life. God actually trusts us to use our minds and our hearts to interpret scripture and God’s revelation and figure out how they apply in the realities of our present world. God has incredibly, entrusted us with the authority and brain power and spiritual guidance to interpret scripture for ourselves.
In one of his letters from a Nazi prison, Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his friend Eberhard Bethge about the concepts of “world come of age” and what he called the “adulthood” of the human race. In this age of science and education, he argued, it is foolishness bordering on heresy to demand that faith must be mindless and thoughtless. Humanity is no longer in its adolescence. The challenges of the modern world, humanity’s increasing independence, and the horrors of war and human suffering have made us adults, and we need to be treated as adults. That includes using our minds to apply our faith.
God doesn’t treat us as children who need to be told what to do. God treats us with respect—as adults. Adults are given freedom to make decisions to the best of their ability, and they are also held responsible for what they do. It’s risky. It’d be easier if the Bible was a simple rule book, but it isn’t. God has called us to live in the world come of age as people who have come of age, who have dared to face the challenge of living like Christ in a world that the people of the Bible could not have imagined. That means doing even more than what is asked. It’s risky, yes—but we have one another, and we have God’s spirit alive among us. Will we make mistakes? Sure. But God knows we make mistakes, and God forgives us. What’s amazing is that God has respected our adulthood so much that we are given the freedom to make mistakes—and on the other hand to blaze new trails—all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.