Accepting a slave as a brother – Thursday, 32nd week in ordinary time – Philemon 7-20
The letter to Philemon is all of 25 verses and our text of today will focus on 14 of these verses. Who is Philemon? He is a young well to do Christian from Lycus valley of Asia Minor, probably Colossae. He is greeted with Apphia who perhaps is his wife and Archippus, perhaps their son. Along with them, Paul greets the Church that meets in their house. Philemon was perhaps a convert at the hands of Paul, probably in Ephesus.
Paul is writing to Philemon on account of a slave by the name of Onesimus who was once owned by Philemon. Onesimus had run away from his master causing Philemon considerable damage. It is for this reason that Paul in verse 18 says. “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. “
Onesimus has now takes refuge with Paul who is in prison, perhaps knowing of the esteem that his master has for Paul. Paul converts Onesimus and makes him a helper in the work of evangelization, not knowing that Onesimus is a runaway slave. This truth is manifest by the visit of Ephapras who recognises Onesimus or perhaps, Onesimus makes a confession on seeing Epaphras; realising the game is up.
Paul, on the one had wants to keep Onesimus for the purpose of evangelization but realises that Philemon cannot be deprived of his rights and so decides to send him back(14, ). In verse 14 he says, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.”
It was not that Paul did not need Onesimus, in fact he says, “I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel.” There is something beautiful here. Christianity does not help a man run away from his past; it enables him to face it. Onesimus had run away, Paul sends him to face what he has done.
Knowing the possible punishments meted out to runaway slaves Paul makes a passionate plea to Philemon to take back Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother (verse 16) and not to punish him. It must have been hard for Philemon to treat a runaway slave as a brother, but that is what Paul requests.
Paul promises to restore all the damages that are caused to Philemon by Onesimus, but how he plans to do that from prison remains a question. In all of this we see a flash of humour. Paul tells Philemon, you owe me your soul for I brought you to Christ, won’t you let me make some profit out of you now.
Despite its seeming personal nature, the letter also deals with the issue of slavery. It manifests Paul’s warm hearted and pastoral affection for Onesimus. In sending him back, Paul does not try to change the social order. Paul sees the futility of trying to fight a structure that is so deeply rooted in the system. Slavery was well accepted as a way of life, even though modern thinking finds it repulsive, and rightly so. Paul’s own solution was to transform or interiorise the social structure. He urges Philemon to accept Onesimus as a beloved brother.