[Note: This is the prepared text for a split sermon given to the Dalles congregation of the United Church of God on July 3, 2021.]
Let’s talk about the politics of Philemon and how they relate to the Christian. One of the more contentious aspects of our contemporary culture and its various political squabbles is the nature of politics in the Bible. And let us be clear, the Bible has a very unmistakable political worldview that is highly different from the politics we see around us. In light of the often pointless and frustrating discussions of politics in the contemporary world, it is easy for us as believers to want to hide in our shell like turtles and try to avoid all thought about politics in hope that we can avoid the squabbles and fights about it. However, politics is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It is, in fact, unavoidable to deal with politics, however one might wish to. Let us therefore begin, before we get into the specific politics of Philemon and how they deal with the Christian, address first the question of what we mean by the political worldview of the Bible. This is admittedly a bit of a digression, but it is an important one, and it is vital to deal with this question of what the politics of the Bible are before one can apply them to specific examples.
So, let us begin with definitions. Our word politics comes from the Greek word politikos, which itself springs from the Greek word polis, the word for city. Among the many definitions of politics are at least a few that are highly relevant to the book of Philemon in particular and to the Bible in general. Politics includes questions of status and authority, specifically in the authority over territories or institutions. This is clearly something that is relevant to the Bible. In both the parable of the talents and the similar but distinct parable of the minas, Jesus Christ promised to faithful believers rule over a certain number of cities as a result of the faithful development of God-given gifts. In fact, it is worthwhile for us to consider the political context of what it means to be a believer in Matthew 25:14-29, as it helps us to understand the book of Philemon and its political perspective a bit better. Matthew 25:14-29 reads as follows: ““For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. “So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ “Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’ “But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
There are a lot of politics going on here. Jesus Christ is portrayed as a lord–and this is a political title, let us not forget–who gives his servants gifts and expects them to do business with those gifts in some fashion to make profit for Himself. When He returns, he settles up accounts with His servants and rewards them based on the proportion of what they have earned to what He gave them, and promises them political rewards in ruling over others as a result of their faithfulness, while judging those who are lazy and unprofitable. No matter what one’s definition of politics, we find these matters to be political. The choice of how many talents to give to which servant is political, the rule of Jesus Christ as lord and of His servants–hopefully ourselves–is political. The rewards and judgment, and even the coercive casting of the unprofitable and lazy servant into outer darkness are all political matters relating to the reality and legitimacy of Jesus Christ’s authority over us and over this world as Lord and King. As believers, we cannot escape politics. Nor should we want to, since the Bible discusses our identity and our blessings in political language. What we need to do, though, is to understand that the political philosophy of the Bible is very different from the political philosophies and practices that we find on this earth, especially but not only in our own corrupt day and age.
With that context, let us turn to the book of Philemon. And I would like to give you all a bit of a pop quiz here today. How long do you think it is in the book of Philemon before politics enters the picture? How many words, at least in the English translation of the Bible on your laps, is it before we enter into a political discussion. I’d like you all to give me a number; don’t be shy. Let us begin with the introduction to Philemon, the first three verses of this very short book, to see how early politics becomes a subject of discussion. Philemon verses one through three read: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” There are eleven words in these first three verses that deal with politics, and specifically the politics of the Bible and of the church and its social context in these three verses. These words include prisoner, Christ, brother, friend, laborer, soldier, church, house, Father, and Lord. These words invite political questions. What is the legitimacy of a state that makes a righteous man like Paul a prisoner, subject to the coercive power of government with a resulting loss of freedom and dignity? What does it mean for Christ to be a Lord and Savior? What is He lord of? What does He save us from? What does it mean for someone to be our brother or our friend? What does it mean to be a laborer or soldier in the Church of God? What does it mean for God to be our Father? What are the politics of the congregation and the Church of God? What are the politics of a household where there are masters and slaves? These are all political questions that were contentious during the time of Paul, and many of which remain problematic today.
It should also be noted that this greeting of Paul, this greeting that is full of political language and that openly invites a great many political questions, is not an unconventional or unusual introduction to his letters. Paul began all of his letters in a similar fashion. For the sake of convenience, let us compare Philemon’s introduction to the introduction to the book of Colossians, which was written at about the same time to the same audience as the book of Philemon, a congregational letter just as Philemon is a very personal one, while keeping a marker in Philemon because we will be returning there shortly. Colossians’ introduction is in Colossians 1:1-2. Colossians 1:1-2 reads: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” We can see many of the same political words and the same political questions being invited by Paul’s standard greeting. Immediately upon opening his letter, Paul discusses his own authority as apostle by the will of God–a distinctly political issue–and similarly introduces terms which lead the hearer and reader of this letter to ponder the politics of the household, the congregation, and of the kingdom of God. And, if you will take the time to read the introductions to all of Paul’s letters, you will find that this is a consistent opening. Paul refers to himself various ways–sometimes as a slave or a bondservant of Jesus Christ, sometimes, as in Colosse, as an apostle, and sometimes, as is the case in Philemon, as a prisoner, but all of these labels and identities invite political questions, albeit of a slightly different nature.
Let us return to Philemon. Continuing on in Philemon verses four through seven, we find Paul giving a very gracious but also subtly critical discussion of Philemon’s effectiveness as a believer. Philemon :4-7 reads: “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.” On the positive side, Paul mentions that he makes mention of Philemon in his prayers and is joyful about the way that Philemon through his godly service has refreshed the hearts of the saints in Colosse. Yet there is an element of gentle criticism here, when Paul states that he wishes that Philemon’s sharing of his faith may become effective, implying that it is not as effective as it could be and that there is something holding Philemon back in being an effective witness to the power and love of Jesus Christ towards humanity. Let us note that we are seven verses into a book of the Bible that has only twenty-five verses, so we are between a quarter and a third of the way through the entire letter to Philemon and Paul has yet to mention the subject of this letter. This is also political. Indeed, the gracious and mild way that Paul seeks to encourage Philemon to act in a way that he clearly wants demonstrates something about the gentle way that authority is to be exercised within the Church of God. Let us put a pin in this thought because we will return to it at some length shortly.
It is only at this point that Paul is ready to make his request of Philemon, in verses eight through sixteen, which form the main body of this letter. Philemon :8-16 read as follows: ” Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ—I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
The book of Philemon and its politics is unsettling to Americans in a particular and specific way that is strongly based on our own history, and it is at this point that we must discuss the elephant in the room of American politics and indeed the politics of Philemon, and that is the question of slavery. It is at this point in the book of Philemon that all of those political questions at the beginning of the book, questions of the politics of the church and of the household, of what it meant to be a brother, are addressed in a shocking way. Indeed, the politics of the book of Philemon offer a strong rebuke to all aspects of Roman as well as American society, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Let us therefore address slavery as it existed in Roman society from what we know, as well as how it existed in American history, and how it continue to shape our experience as Americans.
Both the Roman Empire and the United States up to the end of the Civil War can be considered slave societies. In both cases the population of slaves was somewhere in the neighborhood of ten percent or more, and where significant potential and reality for abuse could occur because of the extreme power of the master and the lack of power of the slave. In both the Roman Empire as well as the antebellum United States, there were coercive laws that dealt with runaway slaves and how they were to be punished, there was a profitable internal slave trade where free people were kidnapped and sold for profit, and where slaves were viewed as valuable and special forms of property. In both societies slaves could be found serving households in a position of privilege or in mining and farming and other forms of physical labor under harsh conditions. It should be noted as well, though, that there were also significant differences in the position of slaves in the two societies as well. In the Roman Empire, slaves could be well-educated and there was a strong political incentive for masters to free slaves so as to increase the amount of clients that they had who could work on their behalf in local and occasionally imperial politics. A great many slaves were able to obtain their freedom early in life and continue to be a part of their former master’s household as freedmen, and slavery in the Roman Empire was something that could fall upon anyone of any race. Slavery in the United States was far different–the motivations for freeing slaves were far less, and slavery was strongly attached not only to class but also to ethnic identity, and there was no particular tradition within the United States, especially during the 19th century, of encouraging manumission and the freeing of slaves on the same level as happened during the Roman Empire.
Let us understand something, though, that is remarkable about Paul’s appeal to Philemon to view Onesimus as being more than a slave but as a beloved brother. In making that appeal, Paul in no way demonizes Philemon as a slaveowner. It is also interesting to note that Paul refuses to do anything without Philemon’s consent. This is an act that cuts two ways. For one, it would have been easy for Paul to have commanded Philemon to free Onesimus on pain of being disfellowshipped, but to do so would have only led Philemon to resent Paul for abusing his authority as a minister and failed to lead to a sense of moral development that Paul wanted both Onesimus and Philemon to gain. Philemon, as a slave master, was not used to being concerned about the consent of his slaves. Indeed, one of the psychological benefits of having slaves is having people to boss around whose consent does not have to be taken into consideration. Yet by Paul drawing explicit attention to not wishing to do anything without Philemon’s consent, is also providing a subtle reminder to Philemon to not do anything about the slaves in his household–including the return of Onesimus–without their consent. And once Philemon is led to consider slaves as both his brethren and as people whose consent matters, one no longer thinks of them as mere property at all, but as people who have to be persuaded rather than ordered about. This is a lesson, of course, that is highly relevant to our own lives. And, speaking about our nation’s own tangled relationship with slavery, the fact that slavery was ended without the consent of the slaveowners is something that has allowed resentment to fester and has failed to bring about the proper moral lessons about the importance of respecting human rights across racial and ethnic boundaries and coming to terms with the long-term damage done to people when evil things are done to them without their consent. It also goes without saying that plantation masters should have been more sensitive to the need to consider their slaves as brethren because many of them were not only fellow believers, albeit in their own churches, but were also physical, if unrecognized, brothers and sisters as a result of the relationships between the master’s household, and often the master himself, and those viewed to be chattel property.
With that said, let us move on to the next passage of Philemon, between verses 17 and 22. Here Paul makes a very subtle form of pressure on Philemon, very subtle to us, but something that may not have seemed as subtle to Philemon. Philemon: 17-22 reads: “If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.”
Here we see that Paul is both acting in a way that is extremely gracious but also providing subtle pressure on Philemon to act as he wishes, and that is to free Onesimus rather than to continue holding him in bondage. First, Paul startlingly asks Philemon to treat his returning runaway slave Onesimus as he would treat Paul himself as a partner in the faith. Put yourself in the position of Philemon, and you find that your runaway slave, someone who has not only stolen himself from you but probably other possessions of yours (which Paul alludes to later on), has now returned to you with a letter from Paul. A slave owner had a lot of options both in Paul’s time and in antebellum America when it came to dealing with slaves. They could be beaten, mutilated, branded, and sold into even more brutal conditions. None of these are how Philemon would treat Paul, though. Indeed, we know something about how Philemon would treat Paul because Paul asks him to prepare a guest room to him because he expects to be released from prison soon for a visit to congregations in Asia Minor. Imagine setting up a guest room for a runaway slave whom Paul is asking to be freed, and having to converse with him about future plans, including Onesimus working as a freedman, doing whatever he had done before running away from his conditions of servitude. This would be a dramatic request to ask of someone who owned human beings and considered them as property.
In addition to that, Paul makes an offer to Philemon that is very Christ-like in its approach. We celebrate that Jesus Christ has paid for our sins with His blood, wiping away the debt that we owed, the penalty of death, for our sinful deeds. Paul, in a small way, but in a deeply symbolic one, was doing exactly this for Onesimus. He made the firm legal offer to take on Onesimus’ debt as his own, not even considering that Philemon owed Paul for his salvation, but offering to pay whatever loss Onesimus had brought upon Philemon. This would put Philemon in an awkward position, because while he might have been keen on exacting his debt on Onesimus, was likely to feel far less comfortable doing so on Paul the aged, the infirm, the prisoner, the apostle. And if Philemon himself had to consider the reality of his generosity or lack thereof towards Onesimus and other slaves in light of the grace and mercy he had been extended through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, perhaps other masters could be influenced in such a fashion. Paul made sure to let Philemon know that he was going to follow up about this matter, but there is nothing that would have prevented later religious leaders from adopting the same approach in putting the same kind of subtle pressure on those masters who were less than gracious in their dealings with fallible human beings held in slavery. This too is, of course, a deeply political matter, a choice in how one uses one’s power as a religious leader and what sort of authority within a household is viewed as legitimate within Christianity.
We may better understand what Paul is doing here when we compare Philemon with the other letter written to this same audience, namely the book of Colossians, whose introduction we have already seen. As is frequently the cause with Paul’s letters, Colossians includes a section called a household code that discusses the relationship between slaves and masters. We find this in Colossians 3:22-4:1. This chapter break is a bit awkward, but Colossians 3:22-25 gives the counsel to slaves, and then Colossians 4:1 gives the counsel to masters. Let us look at this counsel now. Colossians 3:22-4:1 reads: “Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”
Let us note the two sides of this advice. Paul reminds slaves to obey their masters but to remember that in their service they are really serving God, and will be rewarded by God for their faithful service. They are called not to behave in eye-service but to serve in sincerity of heart and to thus serve in the proper attitude, thus developing godly and moral character despite their conditions. They are also reminded that those who do wrong will be repaid by God for so doing, a reminder of judgment that is necessary for all of us to keep in mind. Far briefer, but no less interesting, is the counsel given to masters. They are told two things, first that they are responsible for providing what is just and fair for their slaves, and two, that they two have a master in heaven. Remembering that one has a master in heaven is to be reminded that slave owners are in a position of equality with their slaves. Perhaps many of these masters would never have thought this was the case, and certainly those who were masters in antebellum America did not think of slaves as their equals, even though all believers alike, of whatever status, are the servants of the Most High, regardless of our wealth and power. Remembering that we are all alike slaves to God allows us to be just and fair in our dealings with others, once we approach such matters in a proper and reciprocal matter to treat all people, regardless of their power and position, as they would like to be treated, not doing anything to others that we would not like done to ourselves. And had masters in both the Roman Empire as well as antebellum America behaved in such a fashion, our history and contemporary situation would be much different, alas. With that melancholy note, let us return once more to the book of Philemon.
And it is here that the book of Philemon closes, in Philemon :23-25, with three verses that bring us back to where Paul began in discussing political matters in language that is easy for us to overlook. Philemon :23-25 reads: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.” Here Paul brings attention to his being a prisoner in Rome along with Epaphras, who was a fellow Christian leader. Here too Paul notes that just like Philemon, the other people with Paul, like Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, are fellow laborers in the Christian work. And as Paul has written Philemon in an attitude of grace towards a man whom our contemporary generation would harshly condemn for his status as a slave owner, Paul too notes that both he and Philemon (as well as Onesimus and the rest of Philemon’s household, male and female, slave and free), live by the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And, we should remember, both Lord and Messiah are deeply political terms. Although the politics of Philemon are deeply unusual both in their approach and in the graciousness of Paul’s discussion of these political matters, as we have seen today, Philemon is full of political matters. It contains questions of authority and how it is to be exercised, questions of the rights and duties of believers in an imperfect and fallen world but who have been redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and who are to live as godly examples to a rebellious and wicked world. That same call, with all of its political implications, remains for us today to walk as best as we are able with all the help that we can get from our Father in heaven and our elder brother Jesus Christ.