From Paul, who’s a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy.
To Philemon our dearly loved coworker, Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house.
May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus the Christ be with you.
Philemon, I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers because I’ve heard of your love and faithfulness, which you have both for the Lord Jesus and for all God’s people. I pray that your partnership in the faith might become effective by an understanding of all that’s good among us in Christ. I have great joy and encouragement because of your love, since the hearts of God’s people are refreshed by your actions, my brother.
Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, I’d rather appeal to you through love. I, Paul—an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus—appeal to you for my child Onesimus. I became his father in the faith during my time in prison. He was useless to you before, but now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, which is like sending you my own heart. I considered keeping him with me so that he might serve me in your place during my time in prison because of the gospel. However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure. Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother. He’s especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord!
So, if you really consider me a partner, welcome Onesimus as if you were welcoming me. If he’s harmed you in any way or owes you money, charge it to my account. I, Paul, will pay it back to you (I’m writing this with my own hand). Of course, I won’t mention that you owe me your life.
Yes, brother, I want this favor from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. I’m writing to you, confident of your obedience and knowing that you will do more than what I ask.
For quite a lot of people, the Apostle Paul is the “true” founder of the religion called “Christianity.” I suppose the reason for this is because most of the letters in the New Testament are attributed to him with 13 in total, although 6 of those are contested (Philemon is one of the uncontested letters). But he also catches a lot of flack, too. He’s been called a misogynist, a homophobe, and a narcissist, just to name a few. Of course, these thoughts all come from people who see the world quite differently than Paul and are clear signs of reading our modern sensibilities into the text.
Take the passage above. Philemon is a “one chapter” letter.* And some people wonder why Paul just didn’t come out and tell Philemon to set free Onesimus the slave. While he clearly has that authority (verse 8), Paul decides to “appeal to [Philemon] through love” (verse 9). The Greek word for “appeal” is παρακαλέω (parakaleō) and it means, “to ask, beg, plead; to comfort, encourage, exhort, urge; to call, invite.” In other words, Paul isn’t simply asking Philemon to set Onesimus free, it’s much more forceful than that. As can be seen by the other words, there’s a deeper urgency here. Paul’s begging, pleading, and urging Philemon “through love” to release Onesimus.
But why can’t Paul just tell Philemon to release Onesimus? While that’s the right thing to do—the Christian thing to do—Paul has to walk gently, here. In Roman society slavery was the norm; that’s the way society worked. But Paul knows that, because of Christ, slavery is on the way out for “there’s neither Jew nor Greek; there’s neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you’re all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28, adapted; cf. 1 Corinthians 12.13). But he has to do this delicately. It’s one thing to take on Judaism but it’s quite another to take on the Roman empire.
The overall tone of this little letter is παρακαλέω. Paul is clearly urging Philemon to do the right thing without coming right out and saying it. He speaks to Philemon’s love and companionship and partnership as, not only a fellow follower of Jesus, but a dear brother and friend of Paul. Further, Paul insists that Onesimus is now in that same group—he’s become Paul’s “child” (verse 10), his very “heart” (verse 12), and a “dearly loved brother” (verse 16). And just to make sure Philemon gets it, if Onesimus owes Philemon anything, Paul urges him to “charge it to [Paul’s] account” and he’ll pay it back (verses 18-19).
I think this letter gives us insight on how to negotiate many of the social justice issues we face today. What if, instead of trying to topple the whole fabric of the societal order through violence, we followed Paul’s example to make changes subtly, gently? How would that look? In a world where we like to see instant results, what steps could we take to make the slow work needed for lasting change? If we’re wanting to have a world of peace, a world free of slavery, greed, disease, and violence, we can’t succumb to those same tactics, even if we feel we have the “right.” Coercion doesn’t solve things in the long run—it just makes those who were forced to change bitter and resentful. And when the opportunity comes, they’ll lash out in violent revolt. No. The way forward is to appeal to each other’s common humanity. To see others, not as “less than” but “more than.” To see those affected by greed, violence, and slavery as human beings—as our own children. When we do this, we’ll see that we may save a few with acts of violence but we won’t change the world. Changing the world needs the slow work of Love.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
*When people started adding chapters and verses in the Bible in the 16th century, the letter to Philemon was only given one chapter.