Philemon and the New Man in Christ

A Protestant friend made an interesting observation the other day about St. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. This letter is often considered an embarrassment because Paul appears to have sent an escaped slave named Onesimus back to his master, a leader in the Colossian church named Philemon. “How could Paul send a slave back to his master?” many will ask. “Why didn’t he forbid slavery outright?”

Some modern scholars will undoubtedly reply that Paul, being a man of his time, didn’t understand how horrible slavery was. We, living as we do in a more enlightened age, have insights he lacked. This might be true – we all have our blind spots – but I prefer to think the best of people, especially if they were saints writing texts inspired by the Holy Spirit. It just seems safer.

Here’s what Paul says:

Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

Paul, a prisoner for Christ, urges Philemon not to imprison his “beloved child” Onesimus, whose “father” he has become in his imprisonment. As a slave, Onesimus was “useless” to Philemon. Now, returning not as a slave, but as a brother, he can be useful to both of them – no longer carrying the burdens of their useless earthly possessions, but by helping them bear the cross that leads to heavenly salvation.

“Receive him as you would receive me,” says Paul, a man accustomed to asking others to receive him as they would receive Christ. If receiving Paul is to receive Christ, and if to receive Onesimus is to receive Paul, then Philemon should receive Onesimus as Christ, the one who “emptied himself of his divinity,” washed the feet of his disciples, and told them: “I am among you as one who serves.” So the first should become last, and he would be master should become servant to the rest.

The death of Onesimus in the Menologian of Basil II, c. 1000 [Vatican Library]
The martyrdom of Onesimus in the Menologian of Basil II, c. 1000 [Vatican Library]

“If he has wronged you or owes you anything,” Paul tells Philemon, “let it be charged to my account.” Need Paul say anything more to remind Philemon of the debt he owed not only to Paul but to God – a debt paid in full by Christ? Paul knows that, given how much Philemon owes him, Paul could simply command him. But then Philemon would not be giving freely, and Paul knows the difference between external obedience to a commandment and what it is to become a “new man” inspired by a free gift of love.

So yes, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, but no longer as a slave, as a “brother” – a brother in Christ. The basis of their relationship has been entirely transformed, and Paul has sown the seeds to end slavery, not by writing a political tract to direct the application of political power from above, but by seeking to change hearts and leaven the loaf from within. Plant the seed in this one household with this one relationship and let new life grow from there outward.

However “imperfect” we think Paul’s response to the problem of slavery might have been, do we not face similar challenges in our world? Institutions exist that we know exhibit the fallenness of the human condition, and yet we have neither the power nor the authority to abolish them: bureaucracies that denigrate people rather than empowering them; economic structures that enrich the few and leave the poor without enough to live; financial mechanisms that shield people from the moral consequences of their investing decisions.

And yet, could we live without the organizational functions provided by bureaucratic institutions? How would we re-structure our economy and re-organize our stock market to make them serve the common good more faithfully? It’s easy to be critical of past evils; harder to figure out how to reform the troublesome parts of our own system without introducing evils even greater than the ones we face now.

Should we, then, not see ourselves in St. Paul? He could not by himself reform the entire Roman Empire nor convince everyone to abandon the institution of slavery. What to do?

If we can do little else, we can still plant seeds and trust God to give the growth. Be willing to sacrifice for the Gospel and embrace each other, no longer as “slaves” and “masters,” “rich” and “poor,” “weak” and “powerful,” but as fellow “brothers in Christ.”

We cannot save the entire world; that’s God’s job. But if we love others as Christ, we plant spiritual seeds and open up for future generations vistas that may be currently closed to human reckoning. We must walk by faith and not by sight, true to the Gospel entrusted to us, even when it seems odd or shocking; as Philemon undoubtedly must have been shocked when he opened his door and found Paul’s gift: a former slave, a new brother.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.