Weekly Meditation: 4th September 2016
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
One does not think of the apostle Paul as being very personally involved with those he taught or of having much of a sense of humour, but both are demonstrated in his letter to Philemon. It is a plea to Philemon - a fellow-believer from Colosse – to receive his runaway slave and accept him back as a Christian brother. The letter is addressed not only to Philemon, but also to Apphia, to Archippus and to the local house-church, perhaps to ensure there would be witnesses to what he had to say.
Paul, writing from prison (Philemon1:1, 9), begins by commending Philemon for his faith, his love for the saints and the joy and encouragement that news of Philemon’s work in the church has given him (1:4-7). With Philemon suspecting nothing, Paul then starts to reveal his purpose, reminding Philemon that he could “order” him but is actually appealing “on the basis of love” (1:9a). With one final turn of the screw, as “an old man and a prisoner” (1:9b), Paul makes his request regarding Onesimus.
Onesimus was Philemon’s runaway slave, and possibly a thief (1:18); under Roman law he could have been put to death. However, Paul had come across him, brought about his conversion and Onesimus had become as a son to him, comforting him during his imprisonment (1:10). Furthermore, Onesimus – whose name means ‘useful’ – while formerly proving ‘useless’ to his master, had become very useful to Paul and potentially to Philemon (1:11). So useful had he become that Paul describes him as his ‘very heart’ and would have liked to keep him (1:12-13), but sees the proper procedure is to send him back to his master, not now as only a slave, but ‘as a dear brother’ (1:16).
Further, Paul promises to reimburse Philemon for any losses incurred through the action of Onesimus (1:18). Paul is confident that Onesimus will be in safe hands, certain that Philemon will obey him to the letter and even further (1:21) , but cannot resist reminding Philemon that to Paul he ‘owes his very self’. Paul ends his message on a note of hope for his own release soon.
This is how Christians should be in their dealings with one another – persuasive, gentle, humorous, merciful, confident, trusting, compassionate, self-sacrificing, forgiving. We should truly know one another and understand each other’s needs and frailties. Clearly, David believed that God knew him in that intimate way. In one of his most beautiful psalms, David writes of the way in which God has searched him through and through and come to know him, being familiar with all his thoughts and activities and laying his guiding hand upon him (139:1-5). David is aware that, even before birth, God could see both him and the person he would become (139:13-16). God nevertheless makes demands of us, just as Paul did of Philemon. The cost of discipleship can be high. Jesus warned his potential followers that they must not love father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters or even their own lives, more than him (Luke 15:25-26). Furthermore, they must be prepared to carry their cross in order to follow him (15:27). A cross in first century Palestine was not the nice, religious symbol it is today; it was an instrument of prolonged torture and execution, and anyone carrying it was heading for pain, humiliation and death. Jesus tells his listeners to first count the cost of following him, before embarking on discipleship (15:28-33), but whatever the calculated cost, the price of discipleship is to be prepared to ‘give up everything’ (15:33).
Paul’s letter to Philemon is not a Christian endorsement of slavery; he was merely conforming to the social and cultural situation in which he lived. Slavery was a common feature of society; there had even been provision for slavery under the law given by God to the Israelites although this was a much more measured and merciful arrangement than that practised by the pagan nations, and Israelite slave-owners were answerable to law for the well-being of their slaves. Be that as it may, Paul is inadvertently demonstrating in his letter that it is not necessarily the place of Christians to try to overturn established customs and practices. William Wilberforce was undoubtedly right to seek to end the appalling system of slavery in England, and to weaken the slave-trade. But modern Christians must weigh the situation carefully before joining campaigns to oppose, for example, gay marriage, Sunday trading etc.
By Susan Thorne