Commentary on Philemon 1:1-21
The lectionary passage Philemon 1:1-21 that is assigned for this Sunday contains, except for concluding remarks, greetings, and benediction, the entire text of this writing.
It is Paul’s shortest New Testament letter, comprising only 335 Greek words. Despite its conciseness, it is one of his most fascinating and personal writings revealing precious insights into the apostle’s abilities as a rhetorically skilled counselor.
Paul wrote this letter between 55 CE and 61 CE. More important than the precise year of composition is the fact that the apostle was in prison at the time of writing. Although he should have been apprehensive about his own well-being, Paul is concerned about Onesimus, a runaway slave, whose master Philemon he appears to know well. In this letter, we witness how “Paul, through the use of his own position and authority and the reconceptualization of attitudes to Onesimus, brokers a harmonious relationship between the two, though probably without affecting the master–slave relationship.”1
The modern church audience has the privilege of listening to a sample of private communication between Paul and Philemon. For that reason, some aspects of the letter remain cryptic and require additional information. The topic of slavery is one of them.
The preacher might find it helpful to inform his or her congregation that, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, almost everybody could become a slave and that about 35% to 40% of the population was indeed enslaved. As the property of their masters, slaves were considered animated tools and could be bought and sold at their master’s discretion. Slaves were often abused; they could be expelled from the master’s house when they were old or sick. Most important for understanding the urgency of Paul’s letter to Philemon is the information that a master had the right to kill a slave when he or she ran away. Paul was thus involved in a potential life or death matter.
How does the apostle tackle this urgent task? This is where Paul applies his rhetorical skills and experience as a counselor. They are manifest in the following strategies and observations.
Paul knows Philemon who is probably a leader in the Colossian church. He addresses him as “our dear friend and co-worker” (1:1), thus emphasizing their personal ties. He also expresses his abundant gratefulness for Philemon’s love and faith in 1:4-7, specifically mentioning his own “joy and encouragement.” Such words are certainly chosen to flatter the addressee. Paul wants to assure that he is in a good mood before bringing up for the first time the more unpleasant news about the runaway slave.
While the letter’s principal addressee is Philemon, it is likewise addressed “to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house” (1:2). The latter might be the congregation in Colossae. Philemon must have been rather wealthy if his home was spacious enough to allow for its regular meetings. At such an occasion, the letter had to be read aloud to all those people. This means, however, that they were also being informed of the sensitive, yet urgent matter and could have been further agents of control, should Philemon himself have acted against Paul’s advice. To be sure, Paul writes to his “dear friend,” but in the end he does not seem to trust him entirely.
After acknowledging Philemons’s love and faith, Paul presents his request on behalf of Onesimus (1:8-22). That he refers to himself “as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (1:9, see also 1:1) in this context may be seen as another attempt to make sure Philemon reads his words with sympathy and compassion rather than with anger.
When presenting his request, Paul does not command Philemon but “appeals” to him “on the basis of love” (1:9). In addition, he asks Philemon to do a “good deed” that is “voluntary and not something forced” (1:14). Given that the remainder of the Colossian congregation hears these words as well, Philemon will have a hard time not to respond positively to Paul’s appeal.
At the same time, when finally mentioning the name of Philemon’s former slave, Paul introduces him as “my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment” (1:10). Later he calls him “my own heart” (1:12) and “a beloved brother” (1:16) of Philemon. Eventually he recommends that he be welcome as Paul himself would be (1:17). Therefore, while Philemon might have ambivalent feelings toward Onesimus, the latter receives protection through this new status.2 Referring to a slave as one’s “child” is, by the way, a particular expression of honor toward somebody who typically counts as a piece of property.
Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon. The letter that he wrote would have accompanied Onesimus on this way; Paul is imprisoned and hence cannot come along at this time. While it is not clear why Onesimus left his master, Paul is eager to emphasize that he has changed. “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me” (1:11), Paul writes, deploying a pun on the slave’s name, which means “useful” in Greek.
In dealing with this delicate life or death matter, Paul does not resort to his apostolic authority. Instead, he uses gentle words, references human relationship, and evokes mutual love. His own behavior should serve as an example for Philemon to receive Onesimus as a new brother in Christ.
Paul’s humble, gentle, and loving demeanor as manifest in his letter to Philemon should also remind us to behave likewise in our own relationships. While slavery is no longer a common social and economical reality today, we all belong to multiple social networks in which not all participants share the same status. Specifically when we are in positions of power and authority, it is our choice to transform such relationships by choosing a gentle appeal rather than a harsh command.
1 A.H. Cadwallader. “Philemon,” Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012), 400.
2 Cf. J.D.G Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 311.