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The Quiet Abolitionist

16 Pentecost
First reading and psalm: Jer. 18:1-11 • Ps. 139:1-5, 12-17
Alternate: Deut. 30:15-20 • Ps. 1 • Phm. 1-21 • Luke 14:25-33

Lovers of movies devote websites to “Easter eggs,” which in their circles refers to bonus features added to DVDs without fanfare. Easter eggs may reward an artist’s audience of fans with a comment track, a parody, or a blooper reel.

Paul’s Letter to Philemon, in its 25 concise verses, is like an Easter egg in the pages of Scripture. It is a model of persuasive writing, but not in a cynically manipulative fashion. Paul begins with encouraging words for his fellow Christian, as he does in so many epistles. Then he turns to a challenging theme: Philemon owns slaves, and one of his slaves (Onesimus) has become a brother in Christ while he was imprisoned alongside Paul.

When Onesimus is freed from prison, Paul sends him back to Philemon with this letter and a hope. He pleads for this convert’s freedom, appealing to Philemon in a spirit of love rather than ordering him to set Onesimus free.

Two millennia later, this epistle, along with Eph. 6:5-9 and Col. 3:22-25, has become a cudgel against Paul, against the Church throughout history, and against the core of the gospel. Because Paul chose a tone of calm and loving persuasion, rather than an indignant appeal to the Law, he becomes a stick figure who is indifferent to slavery and to human dignity.

You know the rest of the narrative: the Church has been wrong about slavery, wrong about how men and women relate, wrong about race, wrong about divorce. Every abused proof text in history becomes another scalp to hang on the Church.

The Letter to Philemon becomes an Easter egg for those willing to engage the text on its own terms. It shows Paul chipping away at the ancient practice of slavery. He makes clear that a slave-owner who has become a Christian will treat slaves with dignity. He plants ideas that, in time, are likely to make Philemon question whether owning slaves is something he should persist in doing as a follower of Christ.

Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that Philemon sent Onesimus back to Paul, and it refers to him as the Apostle Onesimus of the Seventy, reflecting his service to the original Apostles until their deaths. In this account, Onesimus became Bishop of Gaza (and later of Ephesus). The Eastern Church teaches further that Eparch Tertillus turned Onesimus into a martyr, ordering that he be stoned and beheaded. His feast day in the Eastern Church is Feb. 15.

The beauty of the Letter to Philemon stands on its own power, but the further detail provided by Eastern Orthodoxy coheres with what Paul teaches, and it coheres with God’s clear love of redeeming individual lives. Concentric circles of these redemptions move outward, changing the culture around the redeemed and transforming the Church down through the ages.

We may feel a rush of pleasure when we “interrogate” Scripture for not living by the codes of social-justice warriors. We may stop just short of praying, “I thank you, God, that I am not as the Apostle Paul, by virtue of my being born 21 centuries later.”

If we too are part of God’s kingdom, we will someday see Jesus, and Paul, and Onesimus, and Philemon face to face. They will know the glorious details of the story that this short epistle only begins to tell. Will we not feel burning shame if we spent too many years collecting slights and offenses to become more deeply immersed in the story of redemption?

Look It Up: The same Paul who angers some modern readers wrote the paean to love at 1 Corinthians 13.
Think About It: What traits in Paul do you find challenging? What have you come to admire in him since your earliest days as a Christian?

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