Redeeming Philemon

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Saturday in the week of Proper 24, Year 1 (Pentecost 21, 2015)

Philemon 17 ~ So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

Let me begin with the admission that the Letter to Philemon is not one of my favorite biblical texts. I really wish Paul – and it is Paul; if there is any epistle that is genuinely Pauline, it is this one – I really wish Paul had been less diplomatic, less tactful, less beating-around-the-bush with his friend Philemon and just told him, “Set the slave Onesimus free.” Unfortunately, he didn’t. Instead, he wrote, “Take him back as more than a slave; take him back as a beloved brother” (v. 16) which is open to interpretation and has been variously understood through the centuries, including as permission to continue the institution of slavery.

After those words, however, he wrote the sentence quoted above from verse 17 and today I have come to realize that this is Paul’s subtle twist on the Golden Rule. You remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It seems pretty straight forward, pretty cut and dried, doesn’t it? But, then, have you ever considered how people actually apply the Golden Rule, how people conditionalize it? We make it into “Do unto others as I would have them do unto me if I were them.” So Philemon could say, “If I was a slave like Onesimus, I would want to be treated thusly,” which leads him away from thinking about whether Onesimus actually should be a slave at all.

So Paul doesn’t phrase his admonition in that way. Instead, he says, “Do unto Onesimus as you would do unto me.” In other words, instead of subjectively personalizing this ethical touchstone, he objectifies it. Instead of “consider yourself,” he writes “consider someone whom you hold in high regard and respect” (Paul is assuming Philemon so holds him), then treat others as you would treat that person. It’s much harder to conditionalize this standard: I can’t say, “If Paul was a slave like Onesimus….” because Paul isn’t a slave and holding Paul in high regard I cannot imagine Paul a slave. I can imagine myself in a slave’s position; I cannot do that with Paul.

Problem is, of course, that we don’t know what Philemon did with Onesimus. Did he welcome him back as “more than a slave, a beloved brother” and set him free? Did he welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul, as a person of high regard and respect? If we knew that, then this Letter in the biblical canon would be redeemed; it wouldn’t be subject to interpretation as an apology for and warrant of slavery as an acceptable human institution. Still . . . it’s not so bad as it has seemed.