This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news
Philemon 1: 1-25
As I’ve translated this passage and commented on it in my “Paul: An Unauthorised Autobiography” (Kindle) I’ve put the relevant passage here (I translate “Onesimos” the name of the slave in question as “Mr. Handy”):
<A group of concerned members of Assembly is at the door, bribing the guard to come in. They are Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, who’ve seen Epaphras dragged off and are here out of concern. Paulos finds a wine jug and pours beakers for all.
“Blessings on you all, and especially our young prophet here! We should listen to his anger. But how should we deal with injustice? Even if we could, we must never use violence. Violent words are better than cowardly silence, but not better than the words of the Glad Tidings. I’m writing to a man called Philemon, a follower of Jesus Messiah and the legal owner of my dear son, Mister Handy. How should I deal with him?”
“Send him a boot in the jacksie from Jesus and order him to set Mister Handy free,” Epaphros advises.
“Yes,” Paulos surprises him by agreeing, “But not in those words, because we want him to change. Listen to how it’s done! Are you ready, my son?” he asks me, and I take up my pen once more. He begins:
Paulos, a prisoner because of Messiah Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Aphia our sister, Archippus our comrade in arms, and the Assembly in your home: kindness to you, and peace from God our father, and the Lord Jesus Messiah.
“You see,” he says, “I want to remind him of the public family to which he belongs, including a prisoner, that’s me; an apostle, that’s Timothy; and his own kin, that’s his wife and son; all of whom belong together to our Father God. He’ll have to read this letter to the Assembly. At the same time I honour him by remembering his family by name.
He goes on:
I always give thanks to God for you when I make mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of the trustful love you have for the Lord Jesus and all his holy people. I pray that your partnership in faith may become energetic in understanding all the good things we share in Christ. I’ve had great joy and encouragement from your love, because, thanks to you, the hearts of God’s people have been lifted.
“It’s a discovery of mine,” he says, “That if you suggest a person’s in credit they’re more likely to give, than if you tell them they’re in debt. So I praise him for offering his house as the meeting place of the Colossian Assembly. But- did you notice- I introduced the important word ‘partnership’ which tells him that he receives from others and gives to them, as equals.”
And so, although, in Messiah’s name, I could simply order you to do your duty, I’d rather entreat you by love: Old-man-Paulos as I am, and now also a prisoner for Messiah’s sake, I entreat you on behalf of my son Mr. Handy, the child of my chains. This man, who was useless to you in the past and is now handy to us both, I’ve sent back to you, although he is my very heart. I’d have liked to keep him beside me, so that on your behalf he could look after me in my imprisonment for the Gospel; but I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that any kindness may come from free will rather than necessity.
“In that bit, I cast myself as acting the part of our God, who could of course save the world by giving orders, but instead allows himself to be a prisoner of our violence, and offers us his dear son, his very heart, to persuade us to do what he might have forced us to do.”
Maybe he was taken away from you for a short time, so that you can keep him forever, no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, a dear brother. He is very dear to me, but how much dearer to you, both in flesh and blood and in the Lord!
“Now, as you can see, I’m casting Mister Handy as Jesus Messiah, blessings upon him, who was taken away for a short time by his death; but I’m also advocating liberation for Mister Handy, just as Jesus was liberated from the bonds of death. I’m also guessing that Philemon has an ordinary affection for Mister Handy that can be enriched by the equality of the Lord’s family.”
If you take me for a partner, welcome him as you would me. If he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, have written this with my own hand: I’ll pay you back-and I won’t say a word about you owing me your very self!
“Here I act the part of Messiah who takes upon himself the cost of our wrongs, so that we can be reconciled to God and each other. On his cross Messiah has written with his own hand that he will repay any losses we incur by forgiving others.”
Yes, I do want a favour from you in the Lord, my brother; lift up my heart in Messiah! Trusting in your obedience, I’ve written to you, knowing that you’ll do even more than I’ve asked. One last thing: make the guest room ready for me; for I hope, through your prayers, to be returned to you.
“Now I speak as plainly as I can. The Glad Tidings always demand a response: obedience I say, obedience to the way of love. I would like to visit his spare room; the Holy Spirit wants to dwell in his household; so that he’ll free Mister Handy and send him back to me.”
Epaphras my fellow prisoner of war for the sake of Messiah Jesus, salutes you, as do Mark, Aristarchos, Demas and Luke, my workmates. The kindness of the Lord Jesus Messiah be with your spirit.
In the era of emails we may have lost the art of writing as carefully and imaginatively as Paul. I have obviously exaggerated the theological strategies of his letter, but I’m sure they are there and intended. Paul expects that when his letter is read “in the church” his points will be recognised and appreciated. The letter is a master class in how to bring the whole gospel to bear on a vital matter of community justice: the issue of a runaway slave. Modern commentators often say that Paul ducks the issue, that he doesn’t take it up as a matter of church policy. But that’s simply not true: he does take it up as church policy: within the community, no one is a slave, just as no one is a jew or a gentile. All are one in the Messiah Jesus. Admittedly he doesn’t deal with it a matter of civil policy in general-he probably saw that as beyond his scope- but he did deal with the specific issue of Mr. Handy’s civil status as a runaway slave. We now take it for granted that in democratic countries the church should publicly oppose all social injustice; and that even in tyrannies it can take the risk of sacrificial witness for justice. But the basis of its witness must always be that the justice it requires of the state is already practiced within the church community. In the UK at present for example there is no point in the church demanding economic justice for citizens if it does not already provide it for its own members. In a time of economic stringency it will be an offence against Christ if the church permits any member to fall into disabling poverty. Paul’s immensely resourceful and cunning letter provides the gospel basis for liberating an enslaved person: he is Messiah Jesus, as are all believers.