Reflecting on Philemon 9-10, 12-17
We once again come to St. Paul’s masterful letter of persuasion to Philemon. I always wish Paul had spoken more forcefully against the institution of slavery, but, of course, Christians, already outlaws in the Empire, had no authority to do anything about it. Instead, Paul casually lets Philemon know that his slave Onesimus has run away, and has come to seek help from Paul, in prison, probably in Ephesus.
This is all very risky business. It was risky for Paul, whose term of sentence could have been for another week, another year, or death itself, to allow a runaway slave to take refuge with him.
It was risky for Onesimus to show his face in Ephesus, a thriving port city where, it’s assumed, his master Philemon may have traveled from Colossus, met Paul, and been converted to Christianity. He could have been apprehended and returned.
A common punishment for runaway slaves was to have a leg cut off. But Paul sends Onesimus back to the recently baptized Philemon, to be treated as “more than a slave.” Then he suggests he might be getting out of prison soon, and coming to visit them both. Uh oh. How many legs will Onesimus have when he sees him again?
There’s a wonderful, free online class from the great N.T. Wright on this letter. He says that, if we only had one book from the New Testament that puts a time bomb in slavery, it’s the Letter to Philemon. John Stott, in The Message of Ephesians, says “the gospel immediately began, even in the first century, to undermine the institution; it lit a fuse which at long last led to the explosion which destroyed it”.
What other evils in our world cry out for the time bomb of the gospel?
Kathy McGovern ©2022