Reading Into the Story

In the entire three years of the lectionary cycle, this is the only time that we get to read almost an entire book in one Sunday. 

Of the 25 verses in the book of Philemon, we read 21 today. And it’s an interesting story: Paul, who is imprisoned somewhere in the Empire, sends a letter addressed to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus, and to their house church. Although the letter is addressed to them all, it’s really Philemon that he’s writing to: he’s writing to return Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, and to ask Philemon to treat him generously. He asks Philemon to welcome him as a sibling in Christ, and forgive whatever debt he owes, as Paul will repay it. Paul is filled with confidence that he doesn’t have to demand, because of the love that Philemon has for Paul as his friend and baptizer. He could do so, as Philemon’s elder in the church, but instead he has faith in Philemon’s willingness to follow the Gospel, rather than the law. 

But there are a lot of questions that this little book raises. What was Onesimus’s situation? Why was he with Paul? What, exactly, is Paul asking Philemon to do? What did Philemon do in response to receiving this letter?

And the answer to all of these questions is that we just don’t know. We can make some broad assumptions, based on what we know of slavery in the Roman Empire. We know that while many slaves were in captivity because their side lost in a war against the might of Rome, many slaves were indentured to pay off their own debt, or their family’s, 

or to provide some measure of economic security. Sometimes they engaged in financial transactions on behalf of their masters – think back to the parable of the master who gave his slaves ten pounds, five pounds, and one pound. 

We know that if a slave ran away, anyone who hid him could be charged with theft. The punishment for the runaway slave could be branding, or worse. We also know that if a slave ran away from an abusive master, they could claim asylum and ask for protection – sometimes from a friend of their master, who would then speak on their behalf, but would also become responsible for any financial loss the slave owner incurred. We also know that sometimes slaves were loaned out to friends of their masters who were in need of a servant. 

We know that in the social order of the household, the slaves occupied the lowest rung and the master the highest, with all of the other family members arrayed in between, like the rungs of a ladder. Hold on to this image; we’ll come back to it. 

We don’t know the specifics of Onesimus’s circumstances. Was he a slave due to a military defeat, or was he enslaved for economic reasons? Was he a runaway who went to Paul to be sheltered, or did Philemon send him to Paul to serve him while he was in prison? What was the nature of the debt he owed to Philemon? Did Philemon buy him, paying off a debt that Onesimus owed?Was he a trusted member of the household, managing some or all of Philemon’s affairs, and a deal went south? Was he at risk of any sort of punishment when he returned, or was he doing his duty? How much was Paul sticking his neck out for him, a little or a lot? 

We just have enough of this story of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus to be dangerous. Just enough of this story to allow us to make judgment calls. Some people, on hearing this story, might immediately think, “Onesimus is a runaway; Philemon must have been a cruel master. Why would Paul send Onesimus back, trusting in an inherent goodness 

that Onesimus may never have experienced before?” Others might think, “Philemon is the head of a church house and Paul trusts him to do what is right; he must have been a good guy. Onesimus didn’t have anything to worry about in going home.” Or there might be tens or even hundreds of other nuances of interpretation between those two points. And the simple fact is, we will never know. 

So why talk about it? Why ask these questions? Why even consider what my perspective is or what your perspective is, when we read this story? If the closest we can get to the actual story is speculation, why speculate? Isn’t that a dangerous road to go down? Don’t we know what happens when we assume?

As true as that often is, it’s equally true that we do it. All the time. And our assumptions lead to judgments about why people do the things they do. We do it over minor things: “Why didn’t that person let me in when I was trying to merge onto the highway? I had my blinker on. What a jerk!” And we do it over things that feel less minor, things that sting more and have a longer-lasting impact: the old friend I see in the grocery store and greet happily, only to have them turn away as if they don’t know me. “Why didn’t she want to talk to me? Did I really make such a small impact in her life that she didn’t recognize me, or did I do something to make her mad?” Or sometimes, the judgments we make are for things that truly violate our trust.

I remember almost ten years ago, my apartment was broken into. The thief took a lot of things that didn’t really matter, but they took three things that, to this day, I wish I could have back: a camera with pictures I hadn’t downloaded onto my computer yet, the fancy birth certificate with my footprints on it, and my baptismal certificate. They also took away, for quite a while, my sense of safety and security in my home.    

The police never caught whoever did it. The thief probably only stole a grand total 

of about three or four hundred dollars worth of stuff, so this was not a high priority crime. The police officer who came to my apartment to investigate told me it was probably random – probably someone who was either on drugs or looking for drugs or for money to get drugs, and that’s the assumption I eventually went with. But for a while, it was hard not to feel targeted – not to feel like this was somehow aimed at me. 

I don’t know what would have happened if I had been home at the time. But I make assumptions about that too, and I am glad that I was not.

We all have stories like this: the small and large hurts and slights, real or imagined, as well as the times when we have been threatened or hurt, sometimes by strangers, 

sometimes by people we love. We all make assumptions, and those assumptions can build over time into biases, often unintentional, against a group of people: we may find ourselves saying (and even believing) that everyone who drives a certain stretch of I-35 is a reckless driver, or that people who fit certain predetermined criteria in our heads 

are more likely to be drug abusers, and therefore more likely to be violent, and therefore, I am not safe around those people. And our biases impact how we interact with the world.We become more cautious, less trusting.We pre-determine what level of interaction we’re willing to have, based on the biases and assumptions we hold. We avoid eye contact, or cross to the other side of the street. We confess our faith in a God who accompanies and protects us in all things, but we rely on ourselves to stay safe from the people who just don’t look quite trustworthy. 

Let’s go back to the image of a Roman household being like the rungs of a ladder, with the master of the house on the top rung, his sons on the rungs below, his wife and daughters below that, and the slaves on the very bottom rung. And let’s think about exactly what Paul is asking Philemon to do in his letter. Paul says, “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 

no longer as a slave but more than a slave – a beloved brother….welcome him as you would welcome me.”

Talk about turning assumptions on their heads! What Paul is asking Philemon to do is nothing short of subverting the entire social order of his household, elevating someone who was once a slave to the status of equal. And he puts some weight behind his request, reminding Philemon of his faith and his love for all fellow Christians and maybe even playing on this a little to encourage Philemon to go even beyond his request. Paul even offers to repay whatever debt Onesimus owes Philemon. 

And Paul is public about this, too! This is not private correspondence, meant for Philemon’s eyes alone. No, this is a letter written to the entire worshipping community 

of which Philemon is a leader. The whole congregation is aware of Paul’s request to Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a brother and a beloved child of God. They may have had their own assumptions about how things stood between Philemon and Onesimus, or about why Paul was writing this letter now, on Onesimus’s behalf. We don’t know. But we can assume with some confidence that by writing this letter addressed to the whole community, Paul was asking the community to hold Philemon accountable for his actions in this matter.

We don’t know what the resolution is for Onesimus and Philemon. There are no known writingsthat provide any clue as to whether Onesimus was freed or punished, kept as a slave but welcomed into the congregation or excluded.All we know is that at some point during the last decade or so of his life, Paul sent this letter making the request.

Which raises one more question to ponder: why is this letter included in the Bible at all? When the church fathers were deciding what to include in the official canon of the church, why was this short little letter, this public plea from one person to another on behalf of a third, included? This is yet another question we don’t have an answer to, and likely never will. But we can turn this question on its side and ask it another way:

What does this letter say to us today? How does the Holy Spirit inspire you to read these words from Paul to his friend?

I’ll tell you what I read into it.

I read a plea for forgiveness, even for large wrongs. I read that when we love each other as Christ calls us to love, even if we don’t see eye to eye, we are called to forgive the sins committed against us, knowing that Christ has already paid those debts. I read into it a plea to let go of grudges and anger, and to restore right relationships.

I read a call to allow the Holy Spirit to challenge my assumptions. In those cases where a restoration of relationship is not possible or could be unsafe, such as in the case of the person who broke into my apartment, I read a call to think about what the rungs of my own mental ladder look like, and why. I read a plea to model myself on Christ, who refused to treat people based on what society said they were worth, instead treating them with the inherent worthiness of all of God’s beloved children. 

I read into it a prayer for God to change my heart and open my mind.

What do you read into it? 

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