Summary: Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost September 9th, 2001 Heavenly Father empower each of us to be a true follower of Christ by submitting all to his service. Amen. Title: “Forgoing one’s legal rights in the name of Christ.” Text: Philemon
Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost September 9th, 2001
Heavenly Father empower each of us to be a true follower of Christ by submitting all to his service. Amen.
Title: “Forgoing one’s legal rights in the name of Christ.”
Text: Philemon 1-21
This, the shortest of Paul’s letters, 335 words; II John has 245 words and III John 219, fitting the pattern of ordinary personal letters of the time, is addressed to Philemon, our “brother,” his wife Apphia, called Paul’s “sister in Christ” and Archippus, called “our fellow soldier” and to the “church at your house.” Christians of that time met in a person’s home, there being no church buildings as such. Philemon may have been the recognized leader of that church, although not specifically designated as such by Paul here. This is not merely a person-to-person letter. It is addressed to a church, if only a very small church, and, so, is typical of Paul’s other authentic letters. Where that church is located is not clear. It is somewhere in the Lycus Valley, possibly Colossae or near there. When it was written is also not clear. If written from Ephesus, a date around 55AD would be a good guess; if from Rome 61-63AD would fit well. There is nothing in the interpretation of the letter that is seriously affected by either date.
Roman society was highly stratified, even in the provinces. At the upper level were the Romans, commissioned by the Senate or emperor, who administered the provinces. Then came the local elite, those who by virtue of heredity or money, often self-designated, who are prominent in any town, then or now. After that came the small landowners, shop owners, and craftspeople. Below them would be the freedmen and freedwomen, freed by their masters voluntarily or because paid off by the slave. At bottom were the largest number- those enslaved as prisoners of war, kidnapped by slave hunters, debtors, and children of slaves. There were slaves and there were slaves. Some had it hard- mine workers, construction workers, trireme rowers, etc. Others had it better- household servants, estate administrators, business managers, educators. These latter were frequently paid money, which, if and when saved, could purchase their freedom.
Paul does not try to change the system of slavery, the engine of Roman economy. He applies Christian principles to but one situation, one resulting from the equality and dignity which being a Christian brings and which overrides this world’s social strata.
In verse seven, I have experienced much joy and encouragement from your love: Paul is now addressing Philemon, personally. He recognizes that he is a genuine and effective Christian, leader even. He is also flattering Philemon somewhat in order to dispose him to listen to his request to welcome back the runaway slave, Onesimus, as a brother, and equal, in Christ, even though he is still his “slave” according to the “flesh,” the standards of this world.
In verse eight, although I have the full right in Christ to order you: Paul prefers to persuade. Paul is the number one Christian in the area, having worked and suffered long and hard, establishing many “churches.” No one has more authority in the region than he. Yet he remains consistent with the teaching of Christ in the way he exercises his authority see Matthew 18: 15-18. He practices what he will preach to Philemon. He wants Philemon to show both mercy and Christian love toward the slave Onesimus. If Paul does not exercise his authority with all the rights given by virtue of his position in the Church vis-à-vis Philemon, Philemon should not exercise his authority over Onesimus by virtue of his position of master and owner in the Hellenistic world. Paul is more interested in doing what is right than in his own rights, as a church leader.
In verse nine, I urge you out of love: It would not have been enough for Philemon to take Onesimus back grudgingly, resenting the order but obedient to it. His motivation for doing so is more important that the mere doing of it.
In verse ten, I urge you on behalf of my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become: Such language reveals that Paul has instructed Onesimus in the faith, perhaps baptized him himself, and grown fond of him.
In my imprisonment: Since we do not know for sure the origin of this letter, Paul could mean he was confined, locked up, “in chains.” This would mean he was in Ephesus. Or he could be under house arrest, free to have visitors. This would square with his “imprisonment” in Rome.
In verse eleven, who was once useless to you…now useful to both you and me: “Onesimus” means “useful” in Greek. Paul is playing on its meaning. Onesimus was a rather common name for a slave. Onesimus, having become a Christian, now has a “usefulness” he did not have as a pagan. He seems to have been helpful to Paul in his missionary work.