By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Contemporary readers of St. Paul criticize him for his apparent tolerance of slavery (see Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-25; Titus 2:9-10). Given the specter of slavery and racism in our nation’s past (and, alas, the present), we wish that Paul would have spoken more forcefully, from our vantage point, against the institution. Yet we must be aware of the groundwork that Paul sets down for the abolition of any degrading differences among Christians.
Such is the way in which I read Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”) and 1 Corinthians 12:13 (“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit”). It is true that Paul does not condemn slavery, which was not limited to one ethnic group, as it existed in the Roman Empire of his day; it is equally true, however, that Paul creates the game plan of reconciliation that releases the fetters of one slave in particular.
His name was Onesimus. He had run away from his owner, a man named Philemon who probably came to the Christian faith thanks to Paul’s preaching. Paul may have been in prison when he met the runaway slave Onesimus, though he often speaks metaphorically about his identity as a “prisoner of Christ.”
Through Paul’s instruction, Onesimus converted to the Christian faith, and accepted the resolution of Paul, his spiritual father, to send him back to his master Philemon. Paul gave to Onesimus a letter that he would carry to Philemon; imagine the trust Onesimus must have placed in Paul’s decision! We count that letter to Philemon today as inspired Scripture, a book of the New Testament; it is Paul’s shortest letter, a mere 25 verses!
Paul praises Philemon at the start of his letter as a devoted believer who opens his house to Christians for worship (v. 1). He give thanks for Philemon’s faith and love in the Lord Jesus (vv. 4-5), expressing his hope that their fellowship in leading others to Christ may prove effective (v. 6). Paul then makes a bold request of Philemon, couching it not as a command (which he feels entitled to give) but rather as an exhortation “out of love” (vv. 8-9). The exhortation concerns Onesimus, the runaway who has become Paul’s child in the faith (v. 10).
Paul is sending Onesimus, whom he calls “my own heart” (v. 12), back to Philemon; he wanted to keep Onesimus with him as a partner in preaching the Gospel, but asserts that Onesimus can be more useful back with Philemon (Paul puns on the unfortunate name Onesimus, which means “useful” in Greek). His utility, however, will not be that of a slave: Onesimus is returning to his master “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you as a man and in the Lord. So if you regard me as a companion, welcome him as you would me” (vv. 16-17). As a way of gently guilt-tripping Philemon into accepting this new arrangement, Paul reminds him “I need not tell you that you owe me your very self” (v. 19), probably a reference to Philemon’s conversion at the hands of the Apostle!
Paul’s letter to Philemon is an unheralded biblical jewel; knowing its backstory allows us to humanize the characters we meet, though only briefly, in the New Testament. It also reminds us of the need to dig into history and reflect calmly on the deeds and words of the past rather than to decry them with knee-jerk bombast.
In this letter, we do not find a righteous diatribe against the injustice of slavery; we do, however, recognize the pastoral genius of Paul, who subtly undoes the bonds of slavery and replaces them with the familial ties of Christian brotherhood. The letter to Philemon is a perennial examination of conscience for us even (especially?) today. Why? Well, Paul clearly thinks that distinct social classes do exist, and will continue to separate human beings; the Gospel message enters with great difficulty into fallen human hearts and projects stocked with selfish prejudices. At the same time, he assumes that Christians can treat each other as brothers and sisters without allowing those differences to segregate (I use that verb intentionally) and isolate us into factions. Is his assumption correct – in your parish? In your life?
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas in Irving.