Commentary on Philemon 1:1-21
Preachers could be excused for neglecting Philemon when it emerges in the lectionary cycle.
After all, the letter is a mere 25 verses. Moreover, it appears to deal with a personal matter between Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul. That is, the letter is brief and apparently does not seem to have the theological heft we find in Romans or Galatians. What preaching resources might we find in such a short, particular letter?
Much in many ways, it turns out.
Our imagination about what the letter to Philemon might be about is significantly predetermined by the narrative we build that explains the relationship between Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Most dominant in the interpretive tradition has been that Onesimus is a runaway slave whom Paul is returning to his rightful master. Here, we can see the dark legacy of this text’s interpretation. In the United States in particular, Philemon was one biblical text (mis)used to justify the continued enslavement of our African American sisters and brothers. After all, if Paul in this text is so willing to return a runaway slave to his owner, then shouldn’t we follow suit? If Paul was unwilling to buck the laws of imperial Rome, why should American Christians disobey the laws of a democratic state? One crucial level of our interpretation of Philemon must deal with our recent, collective past; a past in which biblical sanction of slavery and segregation and rancid racism was simply taken for granted by most of our predecessors in the faith.
I would invite us preachers to linger on this dark history, reminding one another that we too are heirs of these historical disasters. Remind us, preachers, that our past is not just our past but our present and our future. It is not enough to preach what Paul might have meant in Philemon all that time ago. We must confront how Philemon was actually read not that long ago. And in reminding us about this text’s past misinterpretation, we may be reminded to be both bold and humble in how we read the Bible today. Yes, God is certainly present in our reading of these texts, but we know too well that our own sinfulness has too often driven us to read a text that affirms our every assumption, even the cruelest ones we hold. We are no more immune to this tendency than those who have come before us.
Our interpretation can then turn to the letter itself. Four verses are key as we seek to reconstruct the story behind the letter: vv. 11, 15, 16, and 18. As I have explained elsewhere:
First, v. 11 notes that Onesimus appeared to Philemon to be “useless,” while he has now proven “useful” to Paul and thus to Philemon too. That is, Paul intimates that Onesimus’ utility has shifted in Philemon’s eyes. Second, Paul recounts in v. 15 that some separation has grown between Philemon and Onesimus, a separation Paul now hopes to help heal. However, what is the nature of this separation? Third, Paul seems to allude to Onesimus’ status as a slave (doulos) in v. 17. Despite the importance of Onesimus’ identification as a slave in the history of this letter’s interpretation, this is the only time that the word is used in the whole letter. Last, v. 18 seems to allude to some debt Onesimus may owe Philemon. And yet what exactly is the nature of that debt?1
In light of these questions, I surmise that Onesimus was probably not a runaway slave. Philemon knew all along where Onesimus was; if he hadn’t, then the letter would have been probably been far longer than 25 verses as Paul would have had to explain the serendipity of his meeting Philemon’s escaped slave. Instead, Onesimus was most likely sent to care for Paul during his imprisonment (cf. Matthew 25:36). During this assignment, it seems that a moment of transformation transpired between Paul and Onesimus, a transformation in relationship that Paul describes by saying that he gave birth to Onesimus while he was in prison (see Philemon 1:10)! Paul calls Onesimus his child and his heart. Paul then calls for Philemon to refresh his heart (v. 20). What else would than mean than to welcome Onesimus into his household as if Onesimus were Paul himself (see v. 17)?
So, what exactly is Paul asking Philemon to do? The rhetoric of the letter is instructive here. Paul is careful in how he describes himself. He calls himself not an apostle but a prisoner of Jesus (Philemon 1:1). He reminds Philemon that he is but an old man (v. 9). Plus, notice how Paul identifies others in his retinue and in Philemon’s household: brother and co-worker (v. 1), sister and fellow soldier (v. 2), fellow prisoner (v. 23), fellow workers (v. 24). This subtle diminishing of Paul’s authority and leveling of the ground between Paul and his fellow followers of Jesus stands in sharp contrast to the number of times when Paul reminds Onesimus of the authority Paul has (vv. 8, 13-14, 19, 21, 22 [he is not asking Philemon merely to prepare the guest room; Paul is reminding him that he will visit and ensure compliance!]), though a pastoral authority Paul would rather not leverage forcefully!
The rhetorical pressure the letter exerts is also found in the shift from second person plural address to second person singular address. The letter is addressed to Philemon and his household and yet Paul switches to second person singular pronouns from vv. 4-24. That is, Paul expects this letter to be heard by the whole community even as he turns to Philemon directly in his request. Paul is calling upon the witness of the whole church in Philemon’s house to ensure that Paul’s hopes are fulfilled.
In the end, I’m convinced that Paul here is calling for a radical reorientation of the community’s understanding of Onesimus’ identity. He is no longer merely a cog in the machine of the household, no longer worthy because of the utility he provides for his master. Onesimus is now a beloved brother. He is kin. And this transformation is a vivid embodiment of the gospel. He is a walking reminder of the power of the good news.
For Paul, what happens in these Christian communities is a matter of life and death. His letters are not just doctrinal. He’s not just concerned with ideas, with the right Christological or theological or eschatological perspective. Paul is a pastor, remember. He cares for these communities because these communities are seeds of the resurrection, sites where the resurrected life can already flourish, places of resistance to an empire that would place us in rank according to social status.
So, you could invite your own communities to imagine what such transformations of relationships and status might look like in your own church and in the various spaces through which we move every week. How does the gospel change not just our minds but how we relate to one another?
1 Eric D. Barreto, “Philemon,” in Fortress Commentary on the New Testament.