Answering for a Slave - Philemon 8-20

There are times we wish the Bible were simply more direct on certain issues. There are many such issues and concerns. Then again, it is often a question of simply paying attention to look for what the Bible does say and stopping to concern ourselves with how that would apply to our own lives, our culture, and our social structures. At the end of the day, the Bible is often much more direct than we like to consider it as being. We just have to be willing to listen with open hearts, minds, and ears. We have to be willing to allow the demands of the gospel to interfere with our standard operating procedures.
Part of the problem is that we want complex issues to be resolved with simple answers. There are some simple answers. For the most part, however, life is complex and one issue interferes with the next. One line of thinking impacts the real world relationships of another person, and what at once seemed simple quickly becomes messy.
In writing Philemon, Paul was caught in one of those precise situations where the simple became much more complex. Paul was caught in the middle of a merging of economic, social, religious, and moral concerns that collided to create a great deal of confusion.
There were established parameters in the Hebrew Scriptures that addressed some of the concerns at hand. There were teachings of Jesus that impacted others. There were relational considerations between Paul and Philemon. There were social and economic constructs that collided with all of the above. On one hand, Onesimus was a slave to Philemon. He was property to be used and disposed of, as well as counted on as a source of labor and income. He was also a fellow believer now after coming in contact with Paul as an escaped slave.
Jesus had not addressed slavery directly as an economic institution. At the same time, he was very clear about treating one another in love, grace, compassion, and equality. He went out of his way to heal immigrants, foreigners, slaves, outcasts, sinners, and others looked upon as somehow inferior to the rest of society. He elevated the hated Samaritans not only as worthy of love but at times even expressing the very gospel ideals God’s love requires. He elevated the poor as integral to God’s purposes and care. In many ways, that was a direct affront to the structures of slavery.
Slavery in Ancient Israel was an economic institution that was not based on racism. It did not make a moral judgment per se on the character of the person enslaved, though many interpreted the plight of the poor as an element of God’s judgment upon them. The prophets, however, made no such claim. The Mosaic legal code also did not allow for such dis-consideration of the poor. It did, however, require the Hebrews to care for their own poor in such a manner as to keep them from needing to become slaves.
Poverty and war were the two drivers behind entrance into slavery. One could be caught in battle and forced into slavery. Alternately, one could become indebted to another and sell themselves or family members as slaves to repay their debts. Slavery was supposed to be a pressure release valve akin to bankruptcy. It was also not supposed to be necessary. Generosity toward the poor was supposed to keep the Israelites from becoming slaves in such a manner. Instead, God’s ample provision for all was to be sufficient to allow generosity of the people to ensure that no one sank to needing to sell themselves or their children in order to pay off their debts.
That was the ethical and moral standard they were to live by. Reality, however, has a way of violating our ideals and encouraging us to accept something less than what God would choose for our living. It had happened in Israel over and over and over again.
Jesus had taken those moral and ethical codes of the Hebrew Scriptures and interpreted them so as to elevate the standards for living in the Messianic age. Rather than accepting the established economic structures of society, Jesus called his followers to live according to higher requirements. He did not address slavery directly, but he elevated the basic standards by which we are to treat one another. If we lived by those standards, there could be no basis to support the rationale behind slavery. Paul’s letter to Philemon addresses some of this. He does so in a gentle and somewhat subtle way, however.
Life under the lordship of Jesus makes demands upon us. It calls us to live in a way that the legal codes around us do not. To Philemon, Paul states he could simply command Philemon to do what is required by the gospel of Jesus. Instead, he chose to make a request of Philemon, giving him the opportunity to respond in recognition of the gospel’s demands.
In his roundabout manner, Paul asks that Philemon set Onesimus free from the legal category of slavery which ensnared him. He asks that Philemon disregard the economic loss of Onesimus having fled slavery and transfer any such loss to Paul’s own name. With this request, he calls attention to the fact that it is through Paul that Philemon had come to life itself, thus owing Paul even his very life. As such, he requires that Philemon forgive Onesimus and wipe clean any debt that would normally be imposed upon him. This is consistent with Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. It is consistent with Jesus’ teaching on indebtedness. It is consistent with Jesus’ teaching on loving one another as ourselves. It is very much inconsistent with our cultural and social norms in regard to personal finances and relationships.
Paul does not stop there, however. He continues addressing what he would like to happen toward the future for Onesimus. He wants Philemon to send him back to Paul as a fellow minister and believer. He wants Philemon to accept the change in the life of his slave who has accepted the gospel by sending that same slave to minister to Paul in spreading the gospel of Christ.
It is kind of like Paul saying, “Someone stole your car and I have been using it. How about you simply sign the deed over to me and let me keep it. After all, I have been using your car in the mission God called me to.” It is a pretty big request. I’m not sure how happy you folks with be if I started doing my car shopping outside in the church parking lot and simply asked the lucky winner for their keys.
We have very different concepts of property, finances, and the relationship of that property to the work and mission of the church. Paul seems to have viewed those dividing lines much more fluidly. He saw them as almost negligible, saying he had every right to make demands to circumvent those conventions. He preferred to make a request, but he had no compunction against reminding Philemon of just how much Philemon owed God through his own ministry and efforts.
Paul did not address slavery directly as an institution. What he did here, however, dissolved so much of the economic structures that were foundational to the institution of slavery. He discarded the idea that personal property had much meaning in light of our surrender to Christ Jesus as Lord. He cast aside the notion that we are responsible to God only for our regular tithes and offerings. He overruled the concept that personal property is for personal use, alone.
Effectively, more than simply discarding the institution of slavery as antithetical to the gospel, he questioned the whole notion of personal property. Are we ready to give Christ ownership of all we areThat is what is really at stake, isn’t it?

©Copyright 2018, Christopher B. Harbin
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