We now get to the heart of the letter and the reason why Paul wrote to Philemon. This letter is the proof that Paul did not condone slavery. In the first century slavery was quite different to the wicked history of the enslavement of the Africans to western nations and to what is estimated an alarming figure of 40.3 million people who are in slavery today. However, it was still wrong and it was steeped in their culture. Paul in his prison letters taught slaves how to survive by focusing on Jesus and taught masters to treat their slaves with humanity. That is why some wrongfully criticise Paul for what appears to be an accepting of the situation. But this letter to Philemon reveals where Paul’s mind and heart are on the subject of slavery.
The slave is Onesimus and the master is Philemon: “I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” (Philemon 12-16)
1. Treat him the way I treat him and the way you would treat me.
Paul is giving up his own comfort but his ‘very heart’. He has become emotionally linked to this slave. He wants Philemon to receive him as if he was Paul. That surely would have involved the washing of his feet. It would have been given honour at his table. It is a huge thing to say for Paul. Do you have a friend who if they left you they would take your very heart with them? How powerful!
2. I want you to really want to do this.
Paul could have leaned on the Jewish law that stated their slaves be set free after 6 years unless they wanted to stay (an indicator perhaps that being a slave may have been better than not being one, unlike today). He chose not to quote the law (Exodus 21) but appeal to what is inside Philemon’s heart. I believe he is causing Philemon to do the right thing, to look to being guided by the Spirit and motivated by the love of Christ, he doesn’t use those words but the next thing he says shows he has that in mind.
3. This man is more than what his circumstance or anyone including you say.
Paul doesn’t mention the bad deed that Onesimus had done. We have to guess. Philemon obviously knows. That’s not important to Paul. For Love covers over the sin. In fact perhaps Paul is saying the wrong turned out for good regarding help for Paul. The important words are ‘no longer.’ May these 2 words be the message of the Church that remain part of our gospel message! No longer. Racism, elitism, judgments, marginalisation, economic privileges. No longer! When the Church gets back together post pandemic: gossip, back-biting, political nonsense, envy, jealousy, apathy … No longer!