Second Reading: Philemon 9-10, 12-17

Like a Brother or Sister in Christ

Popular Translation

8 Philemon, I am brave enough as a follower of Jesus to order you to do the right thing, 9 but I would rather ask you to do it as a dear friend. I am Paul, an old leader in the Church. Now I am in prison for preaching about Jesus Christ.

10 I make my appeal to you about Onesimus, someone who is like a son to me now that I am in prison chains. 11 At one time, he was useless to you, but now he’s of great value to me and to you. 12 I am returning him to you, and with him, I am giving you part of my heart. 13 At first, I planned to keep him for myself so that he might serve me here on your behalf, since I am in prison for telling others about the Good News. 14 But, I didn’t want to do anything without your permission, so that you won’t be forced to do something good, but, so you would do it willingly. 15 For perhaps because of what has happened, he was separated from you for only a little while, so you could have him back forever, 16 not as a slave, but as someone so much more valuable, a brother in Christ that you love. He is a special brother to me. But he will be so much more to you, in person and in the Lord.

17 So, if you think of me as you partner, welcome him just like you would welcome me.

Literal Translation

8 So, having sufficient boldness in Christ to order (to do) the correct (thing), 9 with love I would rather appeal (to you), as Paul, as such being an elder and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I appeal to you concerning my child whom I gave birth (to) in chains, Onesimus, 11 the (one) then to you of no use, but (now) of good use to [both] you and me, 12 whom I sent to you, him, this (one) is my affections. 13 Whom I planned to keep back for myself, so that, one your behalf, he might serve me in the chains of the Good News, 14 but, without your consent, I wanted to do nothing, so that your goodness might not be by necessity, but by willingness. 15 For perhaps, because of this (incident), he was separated (from you) for an hour, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but beyond (the status of a) slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but much more to you, in the flesh and in the Lord.

17 So, if you hold me a partner (in faith), take to him as (if you would) to me.

9 “as Paul, as such being an elder” The term “elder” can referred to Paul’s age or his status in the Church. He was a “presbyter” (the actual Greek word used), an Elder.

Paul wrote his letter to Philemon as a public (not private) appeal for the runaway slave, Onesimus. The letter was addressed to the house church that Philemon owed; we can assume the scandal that Onesimus caused was shared among the church members. While we can only speculate where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote his letter, we can make an educated guess where the letter was sent. Since Archippus and Onesimus were mentioned in his letter to the Colossians (4:17, 9), we can assume the house church was located in Colossae.

While the letter was not private, it was personal. Paul made many of his comments directly to Philemon that concerned the status of Onesimus. These comments were not simply an appeal for mercy. According to Roman law, a citizen had the duty to return a runaway slave; the slave, in turn, could be punished with a brand on the arm, leg, or forehead (if the slave was a Roman citizen, he could be sparred such treatment). But the duty of the citizen and the status of the runaway were not the issues in the letter.

As Paul wrote, Onesimus was a valuable son to the imprisoned apostle. And, Philemon himself was indebted to Paul for some reason (see verse 19, not translated here). In other words, Paul acted as a spiritual father to these two men. And both men owed Paul, one man service, the other man a debt. Some biblical scholars speculate Paul baptized Philemon and his house; that baptism would have included Onesimus if he were a house slave at the time of his master’s conversion. In this case, Paul acted as a spiritual “patriarch” who could “ask a favor” from his son, and expect a positive response. Why would he expect favorable treatment for returning Onesimus? While Paul did not object to the institution of slavery, he implied something in the letter that he addressed directly in his other letters: In Christ, all believers are free; all are brothers and sisters. In other words, Paul expected Philemon to treat Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a Christian brother, equal in status and worth in the eyes of God. And Paul expected that status to superseded any legal status. What God saw was far more important than what the state saw.

Philemon was an early example of someone torn between the rights of the citizen and the duties of a Christian. While we here in the United States have the separation of church and state enshrined in our legal system, such separation is not and should not be part of personal life. In the struggle between duties of faith and the rights of citizenship, faith trumps rights every time. So, we should act as free people, not free under the laws of the state, but free as children of God. And we should learn that such freedom has a price tag, just as Philemon learned.

Have you ever insisted upon your rights as a citizen? Did your insistence conflict with your Christian duty to love others as you love yourself? What happened? How can you learn from such an experience?