“A Beloved Brother”
Philemon is not like the other letters attributed to Paul. This is a personal letter about a personal matter. It’s not quotable. In fact, most of the religious and scholarly energy get taken up just trying to sort out exactly what’s going on in this letter. Here are the basics. Paul is writing from a prison to a house church. Paul is writing to Philemon and the leaders of the church who meets in his house (notice one of those leaders was Apphia, our sister), maybe at a church Paul founded. The letter is being carried by Onesimus who is enslaved in the house (house church) of Philemon, and it’s about Onesimus. For unknown reasons he had been separated from his enslaver and ended up with Paul. While with Paul, he converted to Christianity. Onesimus was so helpful to Paul that Paul wanted him to stay with him, but Paul didn’t want to do it without Philemon’s agreement. Sending Onesimus back to Philemon is like sending his own heart, Paul says. Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul, no longer a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother. If Onesimus owes Philemon anything, Paul will repay it. And Paul implies towards the end of the letter that he would like for Philemon to send Onesimus back to serve with Paul.
The difficulty with understanding the letter is that there are a lot of blanks in it. We don’t know what caused the situation, we only have hints about the relationships in the situation, and we don’t know how its resolved. Reading the Bible is always a little like eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation, but in this case we only have the barest idea of who’s talking or what they’re talking about. There are tons of blanks in the story. And how you fill in the blanks determines your interpretation of the letter.
Historically, this is one of the main passages used in the American defense of slavery. This narrative developed very early, because many interpreters found it easier to identify with Philemon the slave-owner than Onesimus the slave. The slaveholder narrative goes like this. Onesimus was a runaway slave who’d stolen from his master. He was a bad slave for running away. But then he met Paul, and Paul taught him Christianity. Onesimus converted to Christianity, and his Christianity turned him from a bad slave to a good slave. Paul writes to Philemon saying to go easy on the escaped slave, because he has changed his life and will be good now. Philemon should welcome him as a beloved brother, but not change his enslaved status. Onesimus will be one of those beloved brothers who he could beat or sell or send to the lions if he wanted to. Paul would appreciate it if he could borrow Philemon’s brother/slave. See you soon!
I think whatever else we might see, we can see that this is not a particularly good narrative. It doesn’t make sense that the God who delivered the slaves from Egypt would send his only Son so that Christians might make better slaves. And slavery is one of the greatest blights on Christian history, and this interpretation of Philemon was one of the arguments used by enslavers who beat, raped, and sold women, men, and children like they were draft animals. In this narrative, little thought is given to Onesimus’s action or agency.
Interpreters not interested in preserving slavery can identify themselves more readily with Paul. Onesimus has run away from his enslaver (perhaps because Philemon is cruel? Or slavery is cruel?). Onesimus encounters Paul, comes to Jesus, and now Paul sends him with a letter about him to be read in front of the whole congregation. Paul’s letter is carefully constructed to shame Philemon into freeing Onesimus so that he can travel with Paul as an apostle. It’s filled with requests that are really commands. Paul says, I could command you, but I’d rather ask that you do the right thing in love.” I’m an old man, in prison for Jesus, and you owe me your life. He is my own heart. You should no longer treat him like a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother. Send him to me, and I will pay any debts he owes you. And by the way, get ready because I’ll be out of prison soon and can check up on you. In this narrative, Onesimus is a victim. Paul rejects slavery (or at least this one slave’s slavery) and uses his power to free Onesimus. It’s more faithful than the slaveholder narrative, but it’s probably a stretch that Paul, who had grown up rich with slavery as a normal part of his world, is using this letter to reject slavery while never actually saying so.
In both of these narratives, Onesimus is little more than a chess piece. But what if we believe that he too makes choices, gets to control his own destiny within the bounds of what’s available to him. But what if we see him as a real person?
What if Onesimus freed himself? Believe me I didn’t come up with this on my own. I’m a straight white man who grew up well-off in the South. Slaveholder religion is my default way of thinking and I have to wrestle it down continually. I’m heavily indebted to Korean scholar Sung Uk Lim for helping me see that there’s more to this story.
This interpretation makes Onesimus the center of his own story. Onesimus does not enjoy his slavery. No one does. Maybe Philemon’s Christianity sticks in his craw because Philemon is saying things like, “All are welcome at the table,” while making Onesimus serve and clean a table where he is clearly not welcome. So Onesimus arranges for himself to be separated from Philemon, either by leaving on his own or by getting Philemon to send him somewhere, and he makes his way to Paul, Philemon’s superior in the faith. Onesimus works hard to gain Paul’s love and appreciation and converts to Christianity. He makes himself irreplaceable before letting Paul know about his situation. Now, when we read Paul’s letter to Philemon, filled with requests that are actually commands (surely you wouldn’t deny this to an old man in prison who saved your very life?), Onesimus is as much of a part of his story as Paul is, because Onesimus saw his chance and took it. Maybe he is freed, but maybe not. Either way he has a powerful benefactor, and has ensured that at least at this table he must be treated as an equal.
This last narrative is less common, but it fits the facts just as well if not better. Onesimus had surely heard the gospel at Philemon’s house, but he does not convert until he’s with someone he can leverage against his enslaver. Similarly, he was useless at Philemon’s house, but suddenly a devoted helper with Paul, who could help him. I bring this up because there’s a lesson I want us to learn from this:
When your back is against the wall, God wants you to use everything you’ve got. Sometimes you’ve got to use your ingenuity to get what God wants (for you) or for God’s mission in the world. Onesimus can’t win if he plays by Philemon’s rules. So he found away around it, a way to use his newfound status as a Christian and Paul’s social power to resist his oppressor and improve his life. Scripture is filled with creativity and trickiness, but it is celebrated only when it is the liberation of the less powerful over and against the powerful.
Can we talk about David and Goliath for a second? Y’all know David cheated, right? David and Goliath were chosen as champions to fight in hand-to-hand combat, but David didn’t stick to the rules. You’re not supposed to bring a sling to a spearfight. It was like bringing a gun to a fencing match. But David knew that he couldn’t win as long as Goliath got to make the rules.
David was a trickster—a cheater—all his life. When he was the underdog, his trickery revealed God’s condemnation of Saul and God’s plan to liberate them from the Philistines. But when David became king and tried to pull the same things, God punished him. Because when he’s king, and pulling the same trickery to rape Bathsheba at the expense of Uriah, he’s run afoul of God’s law. When David is the underdog, he’s clever and brave. When he’s king, it’s abuse of power. This is a pretty consistent value ethic in Scripture if you’re paying attention. The Hebrews take the wealth of the Egyptians with the threat of the Angel of Death. Then they go to Mt. Sinai and receive the commandment –Thou shalt not steal. Jacob tricks his brother Esau out of his birthright, but once he has it, Laban tricks him. We’ve got the same moral ethic in our heroes. That’s why we love Robin Hood and hate Prince John. For the most part, the rules exist to bind the powerful, not the powerless. David can’t win as long as he plays by Goliath’s rules.
It’s okay to free yourself. It’s not a betrayal to leave a partner who is abusive to you. In fact, when your back is against the wall, when you’re being abused, oppressed, or disempowered, God wants you to use everything you’ve got. God loves people with their backs against the wall. In fact, sometimes, God puts people’s backs against the wall, just so that God can show how much God loves the people the world loves the least. Think about God hardening the heart of Pharaoh before delivering the Hebrews from Egypt. Onesimus gives us the example of how we can participate in our own liberation through God. This is how you free yourself in a world built on power. You bend the powers of the powerful.
This means that we live our lives differently depending on our relative power in the situation. If we are a Goliath or a King David, God calls us to lay down our lives so that others might be lifted up. But if we’re young David, or Onesimus, or anyone who has their back up against the wall, God wants you to use what you’ve got.
 Brogdon, Lewis. “Reimagining Koinonia: Confronting the Legacy and Logic of Racism by Reinterpreting Paul’s Letter to Philemon.” Ex Auditou, Vol. 31 2015, p. 34
 Sung Uk Lim. “The otherness of Onesimus: Re-reading Paul’s Letter to Philemon from the margins” Theology Today 2016, Vol. 73(3) 215-229, esp.