Commentary on Philemon 1:1-21
Paul’s letter to Philemon is an invitation for the Church to be mindful of people who have been rejected and dehumanized by imperial forces. It is also an altar call for people of faith to free themselves through self–liberation. In every one of us, there is a Philemon and an Onesimus. When one is rejected by society and the world, the ripple effects of that can translate into feeling cursed and rejected by God.
Ethnic wars and conflicts between neighboring nations are on the rise. Some are being exiled and placed under refugee status, and all such experiences are brought to light in Paul’s letter to Philemon. Exile and perhaps being in a state of wilderness help one to realize his or her calling. For Paul, being incarcerated and in chains for Christ allowed him to see the woundedness and pain of others. Philemon is a letter written when Paul was imprisoned in the Roman Empire, and he addressed the letter to a powerful slave owner. His aim was to help Philemon realize that Onesimus needed hope and dignity.
Slavery Then and Since
Living in and within the Empire, Philemon, a Christian, was deeply comfortable enslaving another brother. This raises profound questions for both Philemon and we who are Christians squarely located in the heart of the Empire: How can we be so comfortable, yet there is human brutality around us? How can we study the evils of the Roman Empire, and yet we refuse to study the brutality perpetrated against Native Americans and African-Americans? Under his own chains, Paul’s consciousness about the suffering of other prisoners was profoundly altered for the common good.
The 21st century Church will surely experience organic and authentic salvation if it can acknowledge its own history of evil, wickedness, and brutality against other human beings. In other words, witnessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and being in service to God cannot be done when other people are in chains of injustice. In the prisoner Onesimus, Paul saw a double-chained child of God. While little is known about what Onesimus shared with Paul about his own experiences endured under the slave house of Philemon, we can surmise that what Paul heard was heart-wrenching and it is from that experience, that the tone of the letter was framed.
Paul understood his chains to be serving the purpose of advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In verses, 4–5, it is evidently obvious that Paul and Philemon were not strangers but brothers in Christ, and carefully chosen insights, as well as nuances in this letter, underscore a message yet to be proclaimed in our pews. That message is about social justice, a call to erase human social distinctions, and an urgent critique of the 21st century Church’s comfort with wickedness. Globally speaking, time is overdue for the Church to call out the oppressive, powerful human entities. Human beings have legal rights, but any right that violates the divine right of the other is indeed a dangerous ideological weapon meant to silence and make others invisible.
The dehumanization and enslavement of other human beings continues to be practiced, not recognizing that such actions are the enslavement of God-self. In each of us, the image of God is imprinted, yet slavery from the ancient world and empires that followed had a total disregard for human life. Hence, Philemon is a catalog of human misery, for which the apostle Paul provides love as the basis of reconciliation and peace.
While race-based slavery has been abolished, the Church and many nations where it was practiced have not even designed a liturgy to name the wrongs to open channels of forgiveness and reconciliation. In this case, Paul is probably a theological resource and a dialogue partner on sustainable approaches for meaningful reconciliation. Relationships among human beings continue to rupture and the need for reconciliation is urgently needed. The 21st-century world has lost the “I – Thou,” insight propounded by the philosopher Martin Buber. Our present world is being defined by an “I – It,” approach, in which other human beings are regarded as objects to be easily discarded. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a call to repentance, calling humanity to live and serve with the love of the other (also see Mark 12: 30–31).
A Love Letter
In theological and doctrinal terms, Philemon is a love letter. Love, as Christianity teaches, is the totality of one’s being. Hence, Paul’s letter is a Christian appeal, writing on behalf of Onesimus based on love as the only way to draw Philemon into the ever-stretching net of love. When hope is lost, and one’s identity diminished, Philemon’s letter is an ocean of resources for Christians to humbly talk about the dehumanization of people as an evil practice, one that should be regretted and never allowed in all areas of human life.
The triangle formed with Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon is ours to occupy as we seek to live in peace, love, and reconciliation. While we have turned Christianity into a religion of self-gratification, Paul’s letter to Philemon is about focusing on Jesus Christ and the other. When the apostle Paul calls himself “a prisoner for Christ Jesus,” we see a transfer of identity from personal to a new identity of being possessed by Christ. Bounded against his own will and purpose, Paul makes it clear that his work and living are in service to Jesus Christ (verse 1). This shift in identity entreats a poignant question to 21st-century clergy: Is our ministry for God or simply for self–aggrandizement?
Ministry is not based on tolerance, but on human dignity. As such, based on human love and dignity, Paul pleads with Philemon to accept Onesimus, who was once useless but now has become useful as a fellow kinsman in Christ (verse 16). While slavery was practiced even by patrons in the Greco-Roman world, Paul seems to be asking Philemon and others to abandon the practice of slavery. In some ways, membership in the household of God brings an equal status between slave masters and their slaves. It seems ambivalent what the apostle Paul is up to, but we can infer from Paul’s theology that the gospel is at the heart of all Paul’s reconciling exercises. Philemon, a Christian brother, is being asked to live out the Gospel, through accepting and forgiving Onesimus (verse 10–16). The triangle being formed around Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon is perhaps a Trinitarian construction of family bonds through which the Holy Spirit becomes the glue holding Christian relations together (verse 18-19). It is not just an appeal that Paul invokes, but rather it is a cross-shaped appeal, one in which the sacrifice of Jesus is retold in a manner that calls for solidarity with marginalized people.
Hence, reconciliation involves self-sacrifice; it is the way to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and is a reciprocal exercise (verse 19-21).