In this age of cellphones, it’s impossible not to eavesdrop on others’ conversations. We’ve all had the experience where we’re standing in line and behind us someone is having a loud, perhaps heated conversation. We can only hear one side of it, and even if we’re not paying attention, or doing our best not to listen in, we can’t avoid it. Sometimes we’re drawn in and we begin to imagine what the person on the other end is saying. Intimate details can be shared, the speakers seemingly oblivious to the fact that everyone around them can hear. Such moments can be excruciatingly uncomfortable, as we hear things that aren’t meant for us. But other times, we may be drawn in and begin to imagine the life worlds of the conversation partners.
We don’t think of ourselves as eavesdropping when we read scripture. But in fact, that’s just what we’re doing. We’re listening in on a conversation of which for the most part we are only hearing one side. We assume that the texts of scripture are written directly to and for us. In a sense, they are, of course. These are texts written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, written by authors of deep faith who were bearing witness to their experience of Jesus Christ and were trying to express that experience to others. But at the same time, we 21stcentury Christians were not the intended audience of any of the texts of scripture. We read them because the Church has identified them as the word of God, to use the words of the vows I made at my ordination, “that they contain all things necessary for our salvation.”
New Testament scholars and preachers often struggle as we try to piece together from the scant evidence in the gospels, the historical context within which the gospel writers were working. We seek to understand the communities within which and for which they were writing. In the case of Paul’s letters, we are often on firmer ground. He tells us who his audience is, the Church at Corinth, or in Galatia, or Rome. But even then, almost always, we only hear one side of the conversation. The communities to whom Paul is writing rarely have their voices heard.
The letter to Philemon shares some of those characteristics, but in its case it is even more challenging. It’s the only one of Paul’s undisputed letters that is addressed to an individual—Philemon. Its brevity makes clear that it was written for a single purpose, to deal with a single issue. What precisely that issue is remains somewhat obscure. Although, since the 4thcentury, it has been assumed that Onesimus, who has come to be with Paul, is a slave and that the letter is Paul’s attempt to repair the relationship between Onesimus and his master and owner, Philemon. On this view, there are two more possibilities. First, that Onesimus has run away from Philemon and sought refuge and assistance from Paul. The other possibility is that Philemon has sent Onesimus to Paul to serve him in priston.
The basis for the conclusion that Onesimus is a slave rests on a single verse in which Paul refers to Onesimus as a slave and urges Philemon to take him back, “no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother.”
Whatever Onesimus’ status might be, the letter is Paul’s effort to restore the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon. Paul writes of Onesimus in glowing, heart-felt terms. He has become a father to him during his imprisonment. He calls Onesimus, “my own heart.” Now Paul is sending him back, even though he could continue to use his help in hopes of reuniting the two of them and helping them to overcome their differences.
So this could be a story, like so many others, of someone trying to mediate a conflict between two parties, a conflict made more poignant because each of the parties are members of the body of Christ and such conflict is no longer simply between two people but wounds the body of Christ. Reconciliation, repentance, forgiveness are all crucial in such cases, even when reconciliation is difficult. More than that, if indeed Onesimus was a slave, Paul’s language suggests that he is urging Philemon, and the other members of the house church to which he writes, to receive and accept Onesimus, not as a slave but as a brother, as a full member of the body of Christ.
As we read this text in the 21stcentury, we must address other ways it has been interpreted by Christians over the centuries, especially by American Christians who were reading it in the context of chattel slavery and used it to justify that institution. America’s relationship with slavery has been very much in the news of late. I encourage you to read carefully the essays in the NY Times 1619 Project which shows how deeply embedded slavery and racism are in the history of our nation.
And of our church. Those slaves who came to Jamestown in 1619 came to our sisters and brothers in faith, members of the Church of England and the history of the Episcopal Church, in South and North, is bound up with the history of slavery, and the slave trade. The continuing racial divide in our nation cuts through our church and is a result of the way we Christians have interpreted scripture and sought to live out our faith.
As we read Philemon, we might hope that Paul had offered a full-bore attack on the institution of slavery instead of focusing as he seems to have done, on the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus and Onesimus’ status in the house church. Paul’s language here is ambivalent, even as he seeks to emphasize the depth of his feeling for Onesimus. It seems to be something of a retreat from earlier statements Paul made, especially in Galatians 3, where he writes “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
We may see Paul’s actions here as somewhat timid in light of the profound injustice and oppression of the institution of slavery but it may be that we should also think about him trying to negotiate his faith and his relationships in the context of those profoundly unjust and oppressive systems. How does one act, what should one do, when one is trying to survive, and we should remember that his own situation was quite precarious as he himself was imprisoned at as he was writing.
Our other readings today seem to take little notice of the complexities of the world in which we live. In Deuteronomy we hear: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” In the gospel,Jesus presents his audience with stark alternatives: Following him means abandoning all other relationships—even our most cherished ones of family. We must be ready to give up our very lives and all of our possessions if we want to follow him. But then, we might look at Paul, in prison, having given up so much, and yet sending a Christian slave back to his Christian owner.
All this might be puzzling, confusing, contradictory. It may leave us wondering what it means to follow Jesus, especially when we live in a complex world, enmeshed not only in a web of relationships, but also in a web of systems that are deeply unjust and oppressive. How do we like Paul, negotiate our way through those webs? Is it possible to break away from them?
Perhaps Paul does offer us some guidelines. When we can’t change the systems, or extract ourselves from them, can we begin building alternatives in which justice rather than injustice is operative; where love overcomes fear and exploitation. Paul recommends that Philemon and the others receive Onesimus as a brother, not a slave—if they did that, would they be able to allow him, or other slaves in the household serve them at table, or would they invite him to join them there?
There is much we cannot change but even as we struggle against injustice and oppression, and advocate for a transformation of our society, we can also order our lives and our relationships in light of our faith and the good news of Jesus Christ, so that the reconciling we experience and share with our brothers and sisters, is a model for the reconciliation of the world.