Thursday of Week 32 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Philemon 7-20

Today we begin reading from the three shortest “books” of the New Testament. Today it is a reading from Paul’s Letter to Philemon. The whole “book” consists of just one chapter and is, in the strict sense, a letter from one friend to another. Paul even claims to have written it in his own hand; most of his longer letters were dictated to secretaries, or even partly written by them following Paul’s instructions. The letter was written about the same time as the Letters to the Colossians and Ephesians. Paul is in prison, but where is not quite certain. It is felt that Rome was too far away for him to have been visited by the slave, Onesimus. One possibility is Ephesus, where Paul seems to have been imprisoned for a while, and which was not too far from Colosse, where Philemon lived.

The situation is that a slave, Onesimus, seems to have run away from his master, Philemon, and found shelter with Paul. There is a suggestion that Onesimus may have run away because he had stolen from his master. In which case, Philemon – understandably – may not have been very well disposed to his slave. However, during his time with Paul, Onesimus became a Christian. Philemon was also a convert of Paul’s, so he felt a special affinity for these two men and was anxious for reconciliation between them as brothers in Christ. The letter is written in very tactful language (by one not particularly known for his gift of diplomacy) as if Paul is not at all sure of the outcome.

Today’s passage begins with outright praise for Philemon himself. Paul is delighted to hear of Philemon’s love which has put “new heart” into the “saints”, the Christians of his church. It seems as if Philemon is a church leader and that, of course, means that higher standards are expected of him, e.g. in dealing with a runaway slave.

Paul continues by appealing to Philemon’s love rather than his duty (which might be to punish the errant slave). He further appeals as an “old man” languishing in prison for his Christian faith. He calls Onesimus “a child of mine, whose father I became”, a way of indicating that the slave had been converted to Christianity. Paul was now his “father in Christ”. In Paul’s eyes, this changed the status of Onesimus with respect to his master, also a Christian and also a “child” of Paul’s.

He suggests that Onesimus – no doubt as a result of the formation that Paul has given him – has changed. “He was of no use to you before, but he will be useful to you now.” This is a play on the Onesimus’ name which means ‘useful’.

Although he would like to have kept Onesimus with him, (“He could have been a substitute for you” – how diplomatic Paul is!) he wants to send him back to Philemon. Clearly, he is not altogether sure of Philemon’s reaction, and that is why he is writing this letter first. He does not want to force Philemon’s hand; he would prefer that Philemon himself take the initiative in inviting back his slave, now that he knows where he is.

And Paul is sending back Onesimus now not just as a slave, but as someone who is a brother in Christ both to Paul and Philemon. And the implication is not just that Onesimus is now a baptised Christian, but that he has changed as a person. So Paul begs Philemon to take Onesimus back and, if there is any talk of restitution for stolen property, Paul will take care of it himself. The guarantee is the letter written in his own handwriting. And, because the gift of faith had come to Philemon through Paul, Philemon is in a sense indebted to Paul. He can pay part of that debt by taking Onesimus back.

We do not know, of course, what happened as a result of this letter. But, it is a good example of Christian forgiveness and reconciliation. And, in a world where slavery and its resultant inequality was never questioned, it shows how Christian love must eventually lead to people being treated on exactly the same level where human dignity and worth are concerned. It was already pointing the way to the abolition of slavery, which would still continue for many centuries to come.

And that is why this informal letter of one friend to another finds its place in our Bible, as the Word of God, and giving an example for all of us to follow.

It is often difficult for us to trust a person who has wronged us in some way. It is often difficult to accept that people can change radically. We see this in our attitudes to people who have been in prison. There was great disquiet some time ago in the US, when a woman on death row, who had clearly become a totally rehabilitated person and a sincere convert to religious faith, was nevertheless sent to the electric chair for the crimes she committed earlier in a “different” life. Our society tends to want to exact its “pound of flesh”, to want to punish rather than to reform or rehabilitate.

Jesus was not like that. He was the one who consistently ate and drank with sinners and social outcasts. As a Church, is that accusation thrown at us very often?

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