Today’s reading: Philemon
Paul’s letter to Philemon is the shortest but one of the most important letters. Paul is writing to Philemon about his slave Onesimus. It seems that Onesimus had run away, crossed paths with Paul and was converted. Now a Christian, Onesimus is obligated to his commitments and must return to Philemon. Paul is writing to convey to Philemon that Onesimus has converted and thus stands in a new relationship with Philemon. No longer master and slave, they are brothers. Paul wants Onesimus to be treated accordingly.
After an initial greeting Paul makes this statement:
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ TO COMMAND YOU to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose FATHER I became in my imprisonment.
There are two things of note here. First, Paul says that he has the authority to command Philemon to do what is required. Again, this shows hierarchy and authority. However, notice the Paul instinctively qualifies this authority. It is not absolute but is “to do what is required”. It is an authority related to morality and the proper living of the Christian life.
Second, notice that Paul says that he has become the FATHER of Onesimus. This raises the “call no man father” prohibition question. Why would Paul say that he is Onesimus’ father if he did not expect Philemon and Onesimus to call him that? Can you imagine the scene playing out when Philemon reads this letter? Philemon says, “Onesimus because Paul has become your father in the gospel I am releasing you from slavery and sending you back to him but don’t call Paul father because even though Paul named himself our father we aren’t’ supposed to do that.” It doesn’t make sense. Again, what the “call no man father” passage really means is to give to no man the respect and adoration that is due to God the Father alone. It applied most directly to the Roman emperors who declared themselves to be Gods.
Next, and I think the key to this whole letter, Paul writes this:
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.
Paul is saying that the distinction between slave and free is gone. The distinction of class is gone. All men are equal in Christ. It is this idea that will change the world. Men will continuously fail to live up to this standard but it will keep reappearing. Over and over again it will tear down kings and governments. It will end slavery as we knew it in America. It will help end communism. It is one of the most powerful ideas ever conceived and it is first articulated here. Under Christianity, all men and woman are created in the image and likeness of God, are unique and therefore deserving of respect and equality.
Tomorrow: Luke 1:1-25