Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Reading Through Philemon

witheringtonI am continuing my devotional study of Paul’s “prison” letters. I am reading  Paul’s letter to Philemon accompanied by The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles, by Ben Witherington III. This short epistle powerfully asserts the social implications of the gospel. I am posting from my reading in the New Testament accompanied by various commentaries on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the book are in blue.

Paul writes to Philemon, with the entire Colossian church as a witness, to urge him to forgive and free his runaway slave Onesimus and allow him to work with Paul as a helper to his ministry. Paul asserts that he has the authority as an apostle to command Philemon to do this but he will not use that authority. Instead uses several means to persuade Philemon to do the right thing. He appeals to his imprisonment and need for Onesimus' service. He reminds Philemon that he owes his opportunity for salvation to Paul. Paul also appeals to the spiritual truth that Onesimus is now Philemon's spiritual brother and that relationship, rather than legal or social conventions, should guide the way that he treats Onesimus in this situation. Our relationship to Christ, and the unmerited blessing and forgiveness we have received, should always be the basis for the way we live out social relationships, especially when this involves being wronged. 

“Calling Jesus Christ kyrios in this letter is particularly significant, because as a common noun the word denotes ‘lord, master’ and was particularly used in the contrast of kyrios and doulos, ‘master’ and ‘slave’ in the social world of the time.” This takes on added significance in this letter because Philemon himself has a Master, who provides him with a model as to how he should behave in this situation. Philemon 1-7, 56

Paul contrasts acting according to constraint to acting according to a freewill offering. Philemon must be free to set Onesimus free; otherwise the kind of constraint imposed on a slave would be imposed on a reluctant and unwilling Philemon. Paul does not wish to enslave Philemon to his own will in order to free Onesimus. “Paul touches here on a delicate human problem: that the good that humans do must come from them spontaneously and of their own free will, and not because of any necessity or constraint. This is the essence of being human. Philemon 8-16, 77

In Paul’s mind Philemon has only one option, but in Philemon’s mind there are two because prior to Onesimus’ running away he lived in two worlds. Previously, he could be “in Christ” while still being and acting like the master of a slave “in the world.” Now he finds that “being in Christ” makes a totalistic claim upon him from which there are no exceptions. If he is to remain in the service of Christ the Lord, he cannot be “in Christ” only when he is “in church.” … Because they are in Christ, Onesimus cannot be both Philemon’s slave and his brother, and Philemon cannot be both Onesimus’ master and his brother. Philemon 17-22, Quoting N.R. Peterson, 88–89

In this letter, Paul is subtly overturning Roman social conventions, based on Christian relationships. I think this is also what he is doing in the "household codes" in Ephesians, Colossians and in the pastoral epistles. Paul does not command or enforce social change. He wants it to come from the changed hearts of both those in power and those who are oppressed. Paul does not coerce Philemon because he wants him to see his own blind spots to his failure to apply the gospel to his daily life. Paul wants to bring about social change by changing the hearts and perspectives of both the powerful oppressor and the slave, so that both see themselves as Christ's "slaves" and each other as brothers equal before Christ and practically relate to each other accordingly.

All of us have blind spots, some moral, some of other sorts. Yes, even Christians can have huge blind spots and bouts with selective conscience. Before we too quickly condemn a Paul for not being more strident in his condemnation of slavery, we need to bear in mind that he was seeking a way to remedy an existing evil, not endorsing an oppressive situation. Philemon, 96

The church today, as in Paul’s day, is a voluntary society. And as such, it must live and die by persuasion, freely offered and freely received, if we are to treat each other with respect and dignity and love. Persuasion is just a sort of prayer or faith act turned toward our fellow believers and offered up in the sight of the one who is capable of things that mere mortals are not capable of. Philemon, 96–97

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