Poor Philemon

A slave trader and two slaves. Tomb relief from Nickenich (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

Being the friend of an apostle is probably a mixed blessing. Just look at Philemon, one of the helpers of Paul of Tarsus. He was probably a man of some wealth, because his home was large enough to accommodate a Christian community. He was also able to lend Paul a slave, Onesimus. Still, Philemon was not sufficiently wealthy to offer the slave as a present; Paul had to give him back. Although certainly not poor, Philemon did not belong to the superrich. The ancients would have said that he still knew how many cattle he owned.

Paul wrote the Epistle to Philemon when he had to return Onesimus. It is a remarkable piece of writing. Without saying anything unkind, the apostle manages to force his friend to give up his property. Philemon must have been upset, but Paul played his cards brilliantly and left the owner of the slave no alternative.

In the first place, the apostle presents his request as a favor: “Although I could order you to do what you ought to do, I appeal to you on the basis of love”. Next, he explains how much he appreciates Onesimus, and reminds Philemon of the fact that he is in jail. This was of course unnecessary – the recipient of the letter already knew that Paul was a prisoner – but the implication is clear: Paul will miss the young man. In this way, the apostle presents the return of the slave as a friendly gesture towards Philemon, who is supposed to answer it and to release Onesimus.

In other words, Paul presents the matter as some kind of deal: I give up someone who has become dear to me and I expect you to do the same. Of course it is a fake bargain, because Paul is not talking about his own property. But Paul has more arguments. “If you consider me a partner,” he tells Philemon, “welcome him as you would welcome me.” This comes close to emotional blackmail: if you do not release him, you’ll lose my friendship. Philemon must have been angry, but Paul knew that his friend could not afford to lose the apostle’s sympathy. He had done too much for Paul. If he now decided to break off the friendship, all his friends and neighbors would know that his initial judgment had been unsound. That was a disgrace no one, back then, would find acceptable.

Releasing the slave was a big sacrifice. Philemon may have considered ignoring the letter, pretending he had never received it. However, Paul had anticipated this: he addressed the epistle not just to Philemon, but also to the community that met in his house. This was a master stroke. The man who delivered the letter, probably Onesimus himself, would hand it over to the addressee on a place where he was forced to acknowledge it. At the same time, Philemon was offered an opportunity to show his generosity to other people and accept their praise. Paul had carefully brought Philemon in the position where he could only do what Paul believed he ought to do.

The fact that the letter has survived, suggests that Philemon obeyed. Willy-nilly, probably, but he me may have believed that the release was part of the larger story of the coming of the Kingdom. That is, at least, how an orthodox Christian will read the Epistle to Philemon. Those who prefer a more secular point of view, will recognize another dimension. Although Paul did not condemn slavery, the Epistle to Philemon was a time bomb that forced people to rethink their attitudes towards this institution.

One Response to Poor Philemon

  1. David Ker says:

    Terrific. I was lecturing on Philemon today. What did you mean by Philemon loaning Onesimus to Paul. Most people say that Onesimus was a runaway and a thief and thus could be condemned to death.

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