My Slave, My Bishop!

The transformation in our world from a time when slavery was a “peculiar institution” to a time when the notion of “purchasing” a human being is unthinkable is nothing short of wonderful! And yet, human trafficking is still a very real crime in our modern world, even in our own “land of the free.”

Look at our lesson today in Philemon 1:1-25:

PAUL, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker, and Apphia our sister and Archippos our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may promote the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an ambassador and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand, I will repay it – to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be granted to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchos, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

This is the whole “book” of Philemon! And it’s all about St. Paul writing to this Philemon about his runaway slave who has become a Christian under Paul’s ministry. And now Paul is sending Onesimus (a man who would later become a bishop in the Church) back to his “owner” Philemon.

We could talk for hours about this little Epistle of St. Paul’s but we don’t have time. So, look at a few observations as we embrace the amazing wisdom of this letter to a slaveowner about his runaway slave.

First, St. Paul doesn’t make the letter to Philemon about the evils of slavery. That would have made for a much longer letter! In Paul’s day slavery was “normal.” As much as that grates on our modern ears, it is true. Does that mean Paul defended slavery? Of course not. In fact, many of the early Gentile converts to the Faith were slaves, and the Church often paid to have a slave freed from his indentured servitude. As I said above, the slave in this letter, Onesimus, became a bishop! In fact, in all likelihood, Onesimus became Philemon’s bishop! Cool, huh.

Next, St. Paul focuses Philemon’s (and our) attention on the transfigured relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. Society may have called Onesimus a slave, but St. Paul insists that Philemon call him “brother!” We channel our energies into less productive paths when we miss this vital point. The key to correcting society’s ills isn’t legislation as much as it is taking seriously transfiguration!  What sets Onesimus free wasn’t his status in law as much as it was his changed relationship with God and humanity.

Today, we live in such a politicized age. And when that happens, we Christians can fall into the delusion that if we just pass this law or elect this politician then all will be well. And, no matter how many times we are disappointed, we still keep falling into this trap. The key to the real transformation of society is learning how to be Orthodox on Purpose!

P.S. Dear Lord, my society has become drunk on politics, and I am tempted by this delusion. I confess to doubting the good intentions of others as they have offered this or that “solution” to our troubles. It seems the “convinced” are more like each other than they are to anyone else. I struggle with how to speak at this time. Should we practice silence, or should we speak up? Lord, only You see the end from the beginning, so I throw myself on Your mercy and beg Your wisdom to be a light in this dark time. Amen.

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