Philemon's Conversion = Onesimus' Freedom: XVI Pentecost (Proper 18C)
I have decided to follow Jesus… No turning back, no turning back
What does it mean to follow Jesus? What has to change? What can stay the same? These are the questions that our Lord addresses in this Sunday’s Gospel reading.
Unlike the last few Sundays, we meet Jesus while he is out and about, traveling between cities. He isn’t in a private home or speaking only with his twelve closest followers. Rather he is traveling and large crowds have begun to follow him.
Many are curious about who this Teacher is. They have heard about him, about the strange way in which he speaks and teaches, how he challenges rabbis, Pharisees, and priests. Some have even heard him speak or seen him perform some kind of miraculous healing. Either way, they don’t want to pass up on an opportunity to see him action.
So large crowds are following Jesus along the road, and he stops. He turns to them. Imagine their eager anticipation, that he is going to share some of his famous wisdom. People’s ears perk up, they quiet their children and animals, and the strain to hear what he has to say:
"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)
Can you imagine their reactions? Their anger? Their disappointment? Their deflation?
Maybe this isn’t the guy who we thought he was. Are we even sure we really want to be his disciples, anyway?
Family ties are the strongest bonds in most societies. That was certainly true of First Century Judea. Family took precedence over everyone and everything else. We see examples of this throughout the Bible.
Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebekah. As an adult he had never met Laban, his uncle, his mother’s brother. But when Jacob showed up at Laban’s home (Genesis 29), Laban welcomed him like his own child and allowed him to stay there for seven years.
This was one of the problems that Paul sought to address in his Letter to Philemon.
Philemon is a very misunderstood part of the Bible. It has been interpreted and used in very dangerous ways throughout Christian history, especially American history.
Many white Christians in this country used Philemon as justification to continue to practice of chattel slavery. See, they would say, even St. Paul honored the property rights of a slave owner. He sent Onesimus back to his master where he belonged.
Of course, this is only part of the story. It seems that Onesimus was a runaway slave. Odds are that Onesimus was a debt slave, which is to say that he owed Philemon a large sum of money and chose to pay it back through labor. This was intended to be a temporary, not a lifelong status. Philemon may have been an especially cruel master, or there may have been some other circumstance that we don’t know about. Either way, Onesimus and Philemon were “separated” (v. 15).
At some point during Paul’s journeys, he met Philemon, a prominent and wealthy citizen, and brought him to faith in Jesus Christ. He became a spiritual father to Philemon, which means he probably baptized him and gave him his first Communion.
At some point later on, Paul seems to have met Onesimus while in prison. He mentored and discipled Onesimus as well and became his spiritual father as well. Onesimus became a friend to Paul and Paul wanted him to stay with him for his journey.
But for a variety of reasons, when Paul learned that Onesimus was still legally bound to Philemon, he sent him back with the letter we read today. Perhaps it was to avoid further imprisonment. Perhaps it was to support the church in Philemon’s city.
What we do know from Paul’s letter is that he knew this would be difficult for Philemon. Even after joining the church, we still retain our old habits of sinfulness. Not only did it cost Philemon financially to lose Onesimus’ labor, but it also was an embarrassment to him and his reputation. In Greco-Roman culture, slaves were considered part of a man’s household, or family. They were an extension of oneself. When Onesimus left, he insulted Philemon personally and may have tarnished his name within Philemon’s own community.
Philemon could have taken legal action to seek backpay and other recompense from Onesimus. He also very well could have punished Onesimus physically upon his return. This would be have outside the courts, but legal by Roman statute.
But Paul’s letter is pretty clear that that is not how Onesimus ought to be treated.
“Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (vv. 15-16).
It doesn’t matter that Onesimus left your family, or that he insulted you, or even that he owes you money. That was your old life. Both of you are now brothers in Christ. The relationship you had before is null and void in the light of Christ.
And if cannot reject those social and familial expectations, if you cannot welcome him as you would welcome Paul, the Apostle and Bishop, then perhaps you cannot be Jesus’ disciple.
Each of us faces scenarios in which what is expected of us by our culture or society to do something that rubs against the grain of the Gospel. Sometimes even our closest family and friends ask us to do something we know to be wrong.
We’re only borrowing the money, and we really need it…
What’s it gonna hurt to have one more drink before I hit the road…?
But Christ calls us to a higher kind of loyalty. God wants to be first in our lives, even over our family, friends, and community. It doesn’t mean we have to run away from the world or shirk responsibilities. But it does mean that when we face either-or choices, when we have to choose one thing and reject the other, even when obeying God means that we’ll suffer, Jesus says unequivocally, “Follow me.”
The cross before me, the world behind me… No turning back, no turning back