Today’s Chocolate: Green & Black’s 85% Cacao Dark Chocolate
Today’s Passage: Philemon
Welcome to the third-shortest book in the Bible by word count. It’s Paul’s letter to Philemon, a man who had come to faith through Paul’s missionary work. Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus, who had run away, encountered Paul, and been converted to Christianity. In the ancient world, fleeing as a slave was a capital offense, but Onesimus had tended to Paul’s needs while in prison and proven himself an enthusiastic and helpful follower of Christ. Paul found himself in a tight and complicated spot, and the letter gives us a look into his response to the problem at hand.
Full disclosure: I’m drawing heavily from N.T. Wright’s commentary on Philemon in Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters. It provides an excellent perspective on a situation that it could be easy to misunderstand, particularly when one is inferring based on nothing but a quick read of a 335-word letter. Wright’s done his homework, and his insights into Philemon come highly recommended.
But if you aren’t familiar with the letter or its background, Paul’s actions may surprise you: he’s sending back Onesimus to Philemon. He writes, “I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart” (12). He’s sending a runaway slave back to his master, who in the Roman world would have every right to punish a slave as severely as he sees fit.
Paul, however, has another plan. He tells Philemon, “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother…If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (15-17). Paul makes an appeal, strongly suggesting that Philemon should not only accept Onesimus without penalty, but go further and free him. Paul negotiates shrewdly throughout the letter, but here we see the ace up his sleeve. If Philemon has in fact accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ, if he’s a partner with Paul in furthering God’s kingdom and embracing the love of Christ as a way of life, then he should no more return Onesimus to a life of slavery than enslave Paul himself. The implication is subtle but serious: if he doesn’t free Onesimus, then what kind of partner in the gospel is he?
Slavery in Paul’s writings, as we’ve seen before, is a thorny issue. But in his actions we see what is perhaps his strongest stance against slavery, a push to free slaves without resorting to a violent overthrow of the Roman social order, and an appeal to brotherhood between believers. And he puts his money where his mouth is, telling Philemon, “But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account…I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well)” (18-19). One gets the impression that even as he pushes against anticipated arguments, Paul is ready to pay the cost of Onesimus’ release, if Philemon would dare to charge him for it.
That’s the third-shortest book in the Bible by word count. It’s Paul’s letter to Philemon, a man who used to own a slave named Onesimus.