As we enter into the world of Paul’s letter to Philemon, we should start by naming some hard things. Paul’s letter to Philemon is deeply problematic. Paul is sending Onesimus – an enslaved person who has run away – back to the one who has enslaved him.
We need only think back to our own nation’s history – to how our Constitution protected the institution of slavery and how it required the return to slavery of enslaved people trying to be free. We can think of the Fugitive Slave Act, which enforced that, requiring the return, even in free states, of those who had escaped. Slavery is our nation’s original sin. And, as a part of our history, Paul’s letter to Philemon was used by American Christians to justify slavery. As they might have said, “See, the Apostle Paul is returning a fugitive slave back to a slaveowner – it is in Scripture—and so it should be.” The Apostle Paul sends the enslaved Onesimus back to the one who enslaves him.
We should recoil at the thought of that.
There are some who might say that we should evaluate Paul’s actions against the morality of his time, and not be so quick to judge. I get the spirit of that. But part of our work as we encounter scripture is to enter into its ancient world, look around with honest eyes, and try to find a living word for our day. Part of our work is to critique that ancient world and to critique our own – and in that critique, to say true things, and to find liberating, saving, healing good news.
And so we should say clearly: Slavery is always evil – it was then; it is now. Evil, too, are the entrenched systems of racism that continue to perpetuate slavery’s harm to this day. Participating in any of that is a wrong to be repented, stopped, and repaired. Slavery denies the dignity and humanity of people, and instead treats them as property. As Zilpha Elaw (a former enslaved African) wrote – as she was commenting on slavery in Philemon – “Slavery in every case involves a wrong, the deepest in wickedness of any included in the range of the law.” Slavery inflicts a lifetime of violence, a lifetime of imprisonment. Slavery involves the theft of bodies and lives. It also involves the theft of work. Each of us is created to live and thrive in the world, each of us embodying our particular gifts so that we can work to create good in the world. Slavery steals that work – and the dignity that comes with the freedom to do the creative work we are created to do in the world.
We encounter Paul’s letter to Philemon on Labor Day weekend, a national holiday set aside to honor workers and the labor movements that have worked, over the years, for the full dignity of every worker. Labor Day was first celebrated, by labor activists and some municipalities in 1885 and 1886, and was designated a national holiday in 1894. It was started either by (and there is some dispute over this) Matthew Maguire, of the machinists union, or Peter McGuire, of the carpenters and joiners union, who proposed "‘a general holiday for the laboring classes’ to honor those ‘who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.’"
Labor Day emerged in a world of harsh and brutal working conditions. In the late 1800s, in the fullness of the Industrial Revolution, the average American worker worked 12-hour days, and too often 7-day weeks. You could find children as young as 5 or 6 working in factories, mills, and mines. The factory owners – the emerging tycoons and titans – were exploiting the lives of workers – they were stealing their work.
Labor Day was but one part of the early work of labor movements to secure workers’ rights, humane working conditions, and a living wage. Labor Day set aside one day to lift up the worker – to see them – to see us – not as an instrument of production, but as fully human – to affirm each person’s dignity and full humanity – to bring the worker into the conversation – and to give them a well-deserved day of rest. Like Sabbath, Labor Day affirms both the value of rest from our toil, and the dignity of the worker free to work and create, for a just and living wage.
Even in the world of slavery that we find in Paul’s letter to Philemon, even as Paul sends Onesimus back, Paul brings Onesimus into the conversation. Notice what he does. As the letter begins, Paul names the world they inhabit – the world as it is – a world of hierarchy and power-over – a world that countenances slavery. Paul writes to Philemon and notes the power that Paul has – Paul says, “I could order you to do what is your duty.” And, Paul acknowledges the power-over that Philemon holds in their systems over Onesimus. “I don’t want to do anything without your consent.” In other words, I won’t use my power-over to disrupt your power-over. Paul names, but then backs away from, the power he could wield in the hierarchy of their world. He embraces a different way.
From the start of the letter, Paul rearticulates their reality. It’s subtle at first: Dear Philemon, my friend, my partner, my co-worker – and, on into the letter – Philemon, my brother. Paul uses the language of family: “I , Paul – an elder and prisoner for Christ – write to you on behalf of my son Onesimus – Onesimus who has become my son while I have been in prison.” (In the Greek, that’s actually birthing language: Onesimus, who has been birthed as my son.). I am sending Onesimus – my son – who is my very heart – back to you. I send him with the hope that you, dear brother, will see him and receive him – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, receive him as a brother in Christ. Philemon, my brother, receive this brother in Christ. I am sending you, Onesimus, my very heart. Refresh my heart in Christ.
Do you see what he does there? Paul names two very different realities – two very different visions of the world. Paul acknowledges the structure and power of the world they live in. I could use my power-over; you could use yours. We could continue in the ways that lead to harm, oppression, and death.
But then, Paul re-names, he re-grounds their world – in Christ. Remember, Paul is the one who writes – “Anyone who is in Christ is a New Creation. We are a New Creation. The former things have passed away.” The powers and principalities are falling down around us. “The New Creation is being birthed even now.” And in Christ’s new creation, there is no slave or free – we are brothers, sisters, siblings. In Christ, there is no power-over. “It is for freedom Christ has set you free.”
As one writer notes, in this letter, Paul is calling Philemon and all those hearing this letter read in community, to “a radical reorientation of the community’s understanding of Onesimus’s identity” – no longer a slave, but a brother – no longer a slave, but free. Paul is calling them from world of hierarchy and power- over into a life of mutuality, love, and freedom. Paul is calling them into community – in the Greek, koinonia – into the common kinship they share in Christ.
About a year ago, Royce pointed out to me that I use this phrase “the work that is ours to do” a good bit in sermons. I think that’s a way of standing in a world that is full of so much to do – so much trouble to tend in the world – a way of standing in the midst of that, and searching together, sifting together, for the work that is ours to do. What most needs our attention? Our gifts? What God has equipped us to do?
In the broad sweep of things, the work that is ours to do is always and fundamentally to work for the freedom of all people, the freedom and well-being of all creation. It is for freedom Christ has set us free. We do that – entering into God’s liberating work in the world together – joining together in the creative work of New Creation.
We work to help create that world of freedom – so that – so that – within the broad sweep of things – each person – each uniquely gifted person – is free to do the work that is theirs to do – what they, what we, are created to do. Individually. Together, in families.
Together, in community.
Within this room, I see teachers, gardeners, nurses, doctors, activists, care-givers, librarians, accountants, actors, chaplains, lawyers, physical therapists, family therapists, bakers, mothers, fathers, parents, sisters, brothers, siblings, engineers, business leaders, communicators, consultants, floral artists, educational administrators, tech experts, singers, musicians, scholars, organizers, folks of so many other professions and skills and gifts – collaborators, co-creators, partners – each of us created and gifted and graced with particularity, called into this work, together.
The work that is ours to do is to enter into the work of the New Creation we are in Christ – and to shape together a world in which every person is free – each of us – and all of us together – to become all that we are created to be and do in the world.
Several scholars notes that Onesimus is more the subject of this conversation, than a participant in it – spoken of, not free to speak. The letter leaves me wondering what Onesimus was like – in this letter where Paul is writing to Philemon about Onesimus – Who is this Onesimus who has cared for Paul while Paul was in prison and become his son? What was the work he brought to the world? I wonder if he was a craftsman, with the skill to put blade to wood, or chisel to stone, and to create a thing of beauty. We know Onesimus cared for Paul – perhaps with the tender mercy of a nurse, or a healer. Was he a gifted baker or cook? Or did he have the mind of an engineer – the ability to see the current situation, and imagine a new structure for making the world a little bit better. Or was Onesimus a fierce advocate – for Paul in prison, or for himself. I wonder if Onesimus had a family – a spouse – kids. Were they enslaved? Or were they free? – with Onesimus trying to help keep them fed.
When Onesimus rose in the morning – with all the human hopes we share – for the well-being of family, for peace, for the safety to be free from harm – for compassion and a life with meaning – When Onesimus rose in the morning – with all these hopes – in a New Creation where he could live free – what would be the work that was his to do? Onesimus.
I don’t know how subtle Paul’s letter really is. He writes this letter to Philemon – to be read out loud in the accountability of the community gathered in his home. To be read, as we’d say in the South, in front of God and everybody. I think Paul is pretty clear: Philemon, my brother: In Christ, Onesimus is no longer a slave, but better than a slave, Onesimus is your brother. Your work, Philemon, is to set him free. To relinquish the unjust power you hold over him – and to welcome him – as I welcome you – as Christ welcomes us – partner, brother, friend.
And then there’s this moment at the end of the letter – did you see it? After Paul has laid all this out, he says, “Oh, by the way, prepare a guest room for me. I’m know in prison now – but I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.” I hope to see you soon – you, and Onesimus too. And we get this hopeful glimpse, this vision, of Onesimus, and his brother Philemon, and Apphia their sister, and Archippus their sibling, too –
all welcoming Paul home –
all gathering at a table –
all working to serve each other –
all feasting together –
all of them – in Christ – a new creation –
all of them – in Christ – free.
© 2022 Scott Clark
 Most scholars agree that that Onesimus has been enslaved by Philemon and has escaped. Some posit that Onesimus hasn’t run away, but rather been loaned to Paul). See Eric Barreto, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-philemon-11-21-2 . Either way, Paul is sending Onesimus back toward slavery.  See United States Constitution, Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 (“No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be dischargedfrom such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”).  See Mitzi J. Smith and Yung Suk Kim, “Philemon,” Toward Decentering the New Testament: A Reintroduction (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018), which critiques “Paul’s complicity in the invisibility and silencing of Onesimus.” See also Lloyd A. Lewis, “Philemon,” inTrue to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008),p. 438 (“We wish he would demand or order; he chooses to appeal.”).  Quoted in Smith and Kim, Kindle loc. 6002  See US Dept of Labor website, https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history  See id.  See https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/labor-day-1  Smith and Kim, Kindle loc. 6039.  Smith and Kim note, though, that this “fictive kinship language” does not effect Onesimus’s freedom. It does not “alter his social subordination or the demeaning and inhumane relationship of the enslaved to his enslaver.”  See Eric Barreto, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-philemon-11-21-2 .  See Lewis, supra, pp. 438-441.  See Smith and Kim, supra.
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