The Rev. Irina Dubinski

Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon

Philemon and the theme of enslavement in Paul's letters

Do you believe yourself to be “free”? How do you understand your freedom, autonomy, and self-determination? To what degree do you have it now, and for how much longer? These questions come from my integration of today’s NT reading with my recent experiences as a long-term care chaplain, as well as the book on end-of-life care by Atul Gawande. The scripture about which I will be talking is the letter of Paul to Philemon; one of my favorites, in fact, because it is seemingly “just” a letter. Unlike many other epistles that seem more like treatises, this text reads like a very brief personal note (the third shortest biblical text if in Greek), intended for one person to share with a couple others, and conveying one main request. Reading primary sources such as personal letters often gives me a mystical sense as though the veils of time are parting to allow a glimpse into life centuries ago - I can almost hear Paul’s voice!

The brevity of this text also elucidates the typical structure of all Pauline letters: salutation, prayer/thanksgiving, main section, and the final blessing containing the greetings of colleagues who may have contributed some of the content. In this case, Paul writes from prison in an unknown location. He was imprisoned a lot; and perhaps, it was this periodic loss of freedom that may have caused Paul to turn to the theme of slavery (i.e. the permanent loss of such) in a number of writings, particularly Philippians. Primarily, however, I think it was because slavery was normative in his society, and it made for a very accessible framework to explain his understanding of a relationship with God to his contemporaries.

It’s worth noting couple of things about both slavery and imprisonment of Paul’s time. First, it is estimated that upwards of 30-40% of people in the Roman empire were slaves. One could become enslaved for many reasons, except for the purely racial one, with which we are most familiar. Interestingly, manumission was also more prevalent then than it was ever in North America, but it only made a person “freed,” not “free”. The owners remained patrons, and the slaves continued working for them. Nor was it done because the institution seemed wrong; only that the “freed” persons could be more useful to the household or society in their new status.

As for imprisonment, it could also befall anyone, but never as a punishment. It was only a temporary state until receiving a verdict, at which point a crime might be punished by beating, execution, or fines, but not by further loss of freedom. And apparently, one had to secure own food and comforts in order to survive confinement in environments that ranged from private houses to barracks. To this end, one might have necesssities delivered, or even slaves reside alongside the person in jail. So when Paul wrote the letter we read today, he was accompanied in prison by someone called Onesimus – not his own slave, but that of his good friend Philemon, who lived in the town of Colossae in what’s modern day Turkey. (Recall that earlier in the summer, we read another letter that someone else later wrote to the Colossian congregation as a whole.)

Until recently, it was accepted that Onesimus had stolen money from Philemon, ran away, and made it all the way from Turkey possibly even to Rome, where he either sought out Paul, or met him accidentally. Be that as it may, in light of how I described the prisons of the time, it is quite possible that Philemon did Paul a favor by sending Onesimus to care for his needs, which would also explain its surprisingly deferential tone that contrasts with Paul’s authority as the founder of the community that Philemon then led and hosted in his home. It appears that Paul had kept Onesimus somewhat longer than anticipated, partly because he converted to Christianity and Paul became fond of him. So now Paul writes to apologize for keeping him, indicate his conversion, and request that upon return, he’d be freed in order to become “more useful”. In the concluding part of the letter, he even twists his friend’s arm, so-to-speak, by stating that he would be visiting when he is free, and invoking the names of witnesses located nearby, as well as in Colossae. So not only Paul himself would soon be checking on Onesimus, but also any repercussions he might suffer on Paul’s account would affect Philemon’s reputation. All eyes would be on Philemon to see what this wealthy, influential citizen would do as the leader of a Christian community when faced with this request.

Since the letter was preserved as part of our canon, I think in this case Paul did get his way; however, in general, neither he or other NT writers ever advocated for freeing slaves. E.g., in 1 Cor 7 Paul advised new believers to be content with remaining enslaved, unless a chance to change status arose, such as it did for Onesimus, when it wouldn’t be wrong to do so. Yes, in the Church of all time, believers differ socially, economically, intellectually, and religiously; and these differences may lead to conflicts. We benefit from ancient problems because otherwise texts such as 1-2 Cor would never be written, if all was harmonious in these early communities that we sometimes idealize.

Paul addressed such situations by stressing that none of us is ever absolutely free. Neither in the material world, nor in spiritual terms. This is the very basis for equality in Christ, which Paul also proclaims, and the reason why he mostly didn’t think it worth changing one’s status. More than once he refers to himself and Timothy as the “slaves of Christ” – not “servant” as in some translations. In Phil, Paul quotes an ancient hymn about Jesus, which presents even the Incarnation itself as enslavement. I think that to Paul, slavery was not a metaphor, but truth itself: regardless of legal status - slave, free, or freed - God owns us all, which we either acknowledge or resist. Feelings, values, impulses, physiology, and circumstances control us for better or for worse. Effectively, we spend our lives in worship - of God or “gods” - until sooner or later, a tragedy strikes or infirmity sets in, inhibiting self-determination and casting us in despondence.

Yet, in reward for Jesus’ sacrifice of divinity (i.e., absolute autonomy), God gave him “the name above all names.” And as we read last week, the last shall be first: the victory in Christ is different than any illusion of self-actualization we prize when we still perceive ourselves as “free”. May we, one day, embrace the truth that in life or death, there is no greater reward than to be owned by God. That this gift had actually been ours all long, and will never be taken away by the “changes and chances of this fleeting world”. Thanks be to God.