The reading is from the Catholic lectionary for daily mass, while the headline is meant to keep my thinking real:
PHILAE LANDS ON COMET 67P
Philemon 1 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
1 From Paul, who is in jail for serving Christ Jesus, and from Timothy, who is like a brother because of our faith.
Philemon, you work with us and are very dear to us. This letter is to you 2 and to the church that meets in your home. It is also to our dear friend Apphia and to Archippus, who serves the Lord as we do.
3 I pray that God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ will be kind to you and will bless you with peace!
Philemon’s Love and Faith
4 Philemon, each time I mention you in my prayers, I thank God. 5 I hear about your faith in our Lord Jesus and about your love for all of God’s people. 6 As you share your faith with others, I pray that they may come to know all the blessings Christ has given us. 7 My friend, your love has made me happy and has greatly encouraged me. It has also cheered the hearts of God’s people.
Paul Speaks to Philemon about Onesimus
8 Christ gives me the courage to tell you what to do. 9 But I would rather ask you to do it simply because of love. Yes, as someone[a] in jail for Christ, 10 I beg you to help Onesimus![b] He is like a son to me because I led him to Christ here in jail. 11 Before this, he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me.
12 Sending Onesimus back to you makes me very sad. 13 I would like to keep him here with me, where he could take your place in helping me while I am here in prison for preaching the good news. 14 But I won’t do anything unless you agree to it first. I want your act of kindness to come from your heart, and not be something you feel forced to do.
15 Perhaps Onesimus was taken from you for a little while so that you could have him back for good, 16 but not as a slave. Onesimus is much more than a slave. To me he is a dear friend, but to you he is even more, both as a person and as a follower of the Lord.
17 If you consider me a friend because of Christ, then welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me. 18 If he has cheated you or owes you anything, charge it to my account. 19 With my own hand I write: I, PAUL, WILL PAY YOU BACK. But don’t forget that you owe me your life. 20 My dear friend and follower of Christ our Lord, please cheer me up by doing this for me.
21 I am sure you will do all I have asked, and even more. 22 Please get a room ready for me. I hope your prayers will be answered, and I can visit you.
23 Epaphras is also here in jail for being a follower of Christ Jesus. He sends his greetings, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, who work together with me.
25 I pray that the Lord Jesus Christ will be kind to you!
This is the complete letter and it’s a masterpiece of evangelical persuasion. I’ve dramatised the writing of the letter in my “Paul: An Unauthorised Autobiography” (Kindle) and think it may be of use to my readers today. I have translated Onesimus as “Mr Handy”, which is its meaning. I make himn Paul’s scribe.
“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 useful to us both, I’ve sent him 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.
“Of course he doesn’t know you, my dear friends, but that’s just the point. He’s part of a partnership that’s greater than mere acquaintance.””
It is true that Paul doesn’t denounce the institution of slavery, but he insists that it should not exist amonst members of Messiah’s assembly. It may be argued that equality within the Assemblies of Jesus had more benefits for slaves than any violent rebellion would have provided. In my book, Paul sums up this process in the words, “Love is slow justice.” Justice for slaves was slower than it ought to have been because the church, for much of its later history, lost Paul’s radical sense of the equality of believers and accepted the existence of serfdom in much of the world and the trade in slaves from Africa.
The conquest of the Americas by Europeans untutored in equality led to the extermination of vast numbers of native Americans and the enslavement of many more. I have also written about one of the few clergy working in the Americas to denounce the killing and the slavery, Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish monk and bishop. He, I think for the first time in history, insisted that the status of people within the church, also had to be acknowledged by the state. If native people were children of God, they had to be treated as such under the laws of society. This took the issue a lot further than Paul had done although based on the same principle. He was unsuccessful, but even today his reasoned advocacy of human rights is studied by legislators.
Meanwhile we can wonder at the apostolic cunning of Paul’s efforts for the liberation of one slave at least.