Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This weekend we hear from one of the shortest books of the Bible, the letter of St. Paul to Philemon. At just over 300 words, this short epistle is easily overlooked, especially since it makes an appearance liturgically on Sundays only once every three years, and on weekdays only once every other year. In spite of its brevity and its rare usage in the liturgy, this letter of Paul is very important. It is one of the four letters he wrote during his imprisonment in Rome (along with the letters to the Colossians, the Ephesians, and the Philippians), awaiting trial and ultimately, martyrdom. It is a personal letter, concerned with a personal matter, unlike his other letters which are intended to clarify some teaching or encourage Christian communities. St. Paul is writing here to Philemon, a man who had embraced the Christian faith after encountering Paul, probably in Ephesus. Philemon was a wealthy man and probably nobility. As was common in the Greek and Roman world of the time, Philemon held slaves. It is always important to remember that slavery in that context looked very different from the chattel slavery that was present in the Americas, and was not based on race. This short letter reflects Paul’s attitude to slavery (he understood it to be a societal reality, but he did not support it), for he is writing to his friend Philemon about a slave named Onesimus. It seems that Onesimus ( a common name for slaves that translated means “useful”) had stolen from Philemon and run away, eventually finding his way to Rome where he met Paul. In Rome, Paul evangelizes Onesimus who embraces the faith. The letter Paul writes to Philemon is about Onesimus returning to Philemon’s service.
Even remembering the distinction between the American slavery we so rightly abhor and Greco-Roman slavery, the idea of sending an escaped slave back to his former master seems like a tactically flawed option. Though St. Paul is sending Onesimus back, it is with a particular teaching in mind, and with a personal appeal. He asks Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave, but as though Paul himself were there. He asks Philemon to recognize the Christian dignity of the new convert, indeed to see Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul reminds his friend, gently but firmly, that the very fact of his own Christianity is the result of Paul’s effort, and just as Philemon enjoys the benefit of faith in Christ, so too he ought to rejoice that Onesimus has found this same faith. Paul is calling Philemon to imitate the mercy of Christ. Forgive this man who has stolen from you, for he comes to you with repentance. Paul teaches Onesimus the Christian principle of restitution for sin: he must return to pay back what he stole. Though the letter is personal, the lessons apply to all of us. To be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, we must both seek forgiveness for the ways we wrong others, especially our brothers and sisters in the faith, and we must be ready to receive the repentance of those who have sinned against us. Further, St. Paul is teaching us to look not only at someone’s status in society (echoing his teaching in the letter to the Galatians, where he reminds us that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free), but rather to recognize especially the dignity we have has beloved sons and daughters of God.
The letter to Philemon also contains a smart play on words that confirms St. Paul’s teachings. Inexplicably and inexcusably, the compilers of the Lectionary have omitted the relevant part (verse 11). There, Paul writes, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.” The name Onesimus means “useful.” By his stealing and running away, Onesimus has become useless. By embracing faith in Christ and repenting of his sin, Onesimus has once again begun to live up to his name. He is useful, he is truly Onesimus. Paul reminds Philemon (and all who read this letter) that it is in Christ that we find our true purpose, in Christ that we find our true identity. That which sin destroys in us is healed and made whole by the redemptive power of Christ. We may still have a debt to pay, but that obligation is transformed in the light of the mercy of Christ. In Him, we find our true identity.
I encourage you to pick up the letter to Philemon this week. As it only runs about a page in most Bibles, you may need to look for it carefully, but you will find it! While reading it, place yourself in the position of Philemon. Let Paul’s words take you back to the foundations of your own faith, for he is offering a refresher course in discipleship. Remember the people who have taught you the faith, those who have been witnesses to you, and remember the close moments you have had with God as a result of the faith you hold dear. Let Paul’s words be an examination of conscience, especially regarding any grudges or resentments that have built up in your heart and examine where you might need to forgive, or who you might need to forgive. Likewise, place yourself in the position of Onesimus, seeing the bondage of sin in your own life. Not a legal slavery, but a spiritual slavery. Remember what has brought you back to God’s mercy in the past, and hear once again the Lord’s voice inviting you to return. Examine your heart to see those places where restitution must be made. Most of all, recognize how God is always calling you to find your true identity in Him, and is reminding you of the dignity you received in baptism. Ask for the grace to truly be Onesimus.