Love, Philemon

On the Basis of Love

I'm thinking about Philemon, which is almost a first, though maybe actually a second, since I must have studied it in that class I took about the epistles long ago at a theological school not so far, far away. 

It's a letter, a short one, and it tells the story of a slave who has run away and the efforts being made by Paul to have the slave taken in again, sort of like the hired man in Robert Frost's poem, home being the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in, except it isn't as simple as that. And it's hard for us to read it without thinking about slavery in the United States, which is certainly understandable, and the interesting figure in that discussion for we 21st century progressives may just be how messed up Paul was, because he never condemned slavery, but if we've done our homework we've also learned the justification that since he thought Jesus was coming back in a hot minute, it didn't matter so much, anyway, whether we were slave or free, or etc., because as long as we believed in him, we were going straight on the 1st century equivalent of a rocket ship to heaven, a sort of elevator banked by clouds. 

But I want something else from Philemon tonight, so I'm looking hard at it. I'm thinking about the things that feel like slavery to me, the things I've tried to run away from, or the places I've felt caught or captive. I'm thinking about the people I've wronged when I haven't fulfilled my responsibilities in life (yes, it happens to all of us, doesn't it?), and even a slave had a responsibility in a skewed sort of way.

This is what happens when you let English majors loose on the Bible. We're looking for a glimpse in a word or a phrase we can examine, not a political point to be made. 

Pay attention to Paul, like him or not, accused so many years after his death and outside of his time of not knowing anything about real equality or acceptance, and that's probably true, but listen to him. Try to hear him in these words:

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love–and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 

I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. (Philemon 1:8-12, NRSV)

It's practically poetry. 

Rembrandt-apostle_paul A slave is a prisoner of sorts, and Paul is all kinds of prisoner at this point in his life, locked up and still working hard for his Christ Jesus. He is a prisoner for Jesus, yes, but he tells us he is a prisoner *of* Christ Jesus. This old man, he calls himself that, is a prisoner of Christ Jesus, given over to him entirely. 

I want that, but I am enslaved by my life, the need to earn a living, keep a roof over the head, you know the things that limit our capacity to be faithful, especially after we start having children who need shoes and clothes and backpacks and baseball gloves (not mine, but maybe yours) and music lessons to fulfill their dreams and live their passions and be faithful to God through living their own lives authentically.

Paul would rather appeal to Philemon on the basis of love. He offers to pay the debts of Onesimus, asks Philemon to receive him back as more than a slave, to receive him as a brother, as he would receive Paul.

He asks for a lot.

I wonder what it was like for Onesimus to go back? Was he afraid, or did he believe in the ability of Paul to win Philemon's heart? 

There are so many different kinds of love. I love ice cream. I love my children. I love my friends. I've been in love more than once at different levels of intensity and been loved in return, sometimes, too. Paul is asking Philemon to upend his ideas of authority and ownership, to let love break through and around and over him, to see the value of a person who has been a possession and to let him be a new creation. 

"Please read Paul's letter first," he must have been thinking as he approached Philemon. "Please read the letter first before you lash out at me or have me punished. Please understand that we are brothers, in Christ."

We don't know the end of the story. We only have the letter. But I would like to think, because it survives, that it worked when Paul appealed on the basis of love.

(The painting is Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt's "The Apostle Paul in Prison", 1627, oil on panel.)

4 thoughts on “On the Basis of Love”

  1. Great reflection.
    I’m sure there are as many problems with John Donne and his poetry as there are with Paul and his epistles, but your description of Paul talking about being imprisoned to Christ reminded me so much of Holy Sonnet 14, “Take me to you, imprison me, for I / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free” (12-13).

  2. Mmm. This is great. I’m a grouchy “I hate Paul” type so a different lens is very helpful.

  3. Wendy, I love that, thanks.
    This is honestly the first time I’ve thought of Paul as a poet. Maybe it’s love and maybe it’s old age and maybe it’s the lack of opportunity to preach that pushes him to poetry!

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