Most of my reflections focus on the message of the Gospel. This week, however, I felt attracted to the second reading of the day taken from Paul’s letter to Philemon. Some background is needed to understand the relational dynamic that’s the central focus of the letter. Three people are involved, Paul, Philemon and Onesimus.
During his third missionary journey, Paul spent two years preaching and ministering in Asia Minor. Many were converted to Christ through his preach- ing, especially in the cities of Ephesus and Colossae where he established Christian communities. Philemon was a convert from Colossae. Later on, when Paul was under house arrest in Rome, 61-63 AD, Philemon’s runaway slave came to him and was converted by him. Paul put his relationship
with the slave, Onesimus, in an interest- ing way as he writes to Philemon: “on be- half of my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment…I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.”
This letter gives us a unique glimpse into one moral dilemma that the early Church lived with, slavery. The Roman Empire flourished under a slave economy. Some estimates put the number of slaves as high as 40% of the population. Some were captured in wars, many were kid-
napped by pirates and sold into slavery and, of course, many were the children of slaves. Some slaves were lucky enough to work in the house- holds of the wealthy. Others, not so lucky, were worked to death in mines or shackled together as they worked the fields. Onesimus was probably a house slave. It seems he also stole either money or valuable objects when he fled because Paul volunteers to make amends for him.
In the letter, Paul tells Philomen that he would like to keep Onesimus by his side as a worker from the Gospel, but is, non-the-less, sending him back to his master. But Paul is quite clear that the relationship between master and salve is quite differ- ent now. “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back for- ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a
brother, beloved especially to me, but even moretoyou,asamanintheLord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.” This is powerful stuff!
A slave had the status of a chair or a table. A slave was an object that had no rights. A slave was not a person. Paul, however, elevates Onesimus referring to him “a brother” and “man in the Lord.” Paul didn’t condemn slavery outright, but we can see in this short letter that he recognized the challenge that the concept of slavery posed to the Christian way of Christ.
Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, articulates the moral foundation of a life in Christ. “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male or female; for you are all one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28)
Christianity wasn’t able to come to grips with the immorality of slavery until the nineteenth century. Enlightened thinkers crafted our Declaration of Independence stating: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pur- suit of happiness.” Most of the men who signed this document were slaver owners. Thomas Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves! It wasn’t until 1865 that slavery was abolished in our country. But the depth of its depravity lingered on to this very day.
I find Paul’s letter to Philemon a wake-up call for us today. We still struggle with gender inequality. We still struggle with racial inequality. We still maintain a cast system that fosters the separation of the rich from the poor. Like the first century Christians we still hesitate to name our social sins. I don’t understand how any Christian can be a racist or white supremacist. I don’t understand how Christians can turn a blind eye to the horrors being inflicted on immigrants. I don’t under- stand how Christians can witness a government putting men, women and children in cages and remain silent- even if it means having an argument at a cocktail party.
Two thousand years ago Paul, the apostle his life to Christ, understood the deeper teachings of Jesus and articulated them in his letters to the Churches. Today, Pope Francis is regularly highlighting some of those teachings. He’s often degraded as a socialist and ultra-liberal by pseudo-Christians. Jesus spoke the truth and was crucified. Paul spoke the truth and was beheaded. What are we afraid of that we don’t speak the truth?