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 c