Monday, July 21, 2008 – Philemon – The ChallengeEach time I read this letter I wonder about what must have happened in the household where Philemon was a slave that made him run away. And I wonder what he may have taken with him when he left.
I wonder about the conversations must have happened between Philemon and Paul through which Philemon saw that he needed to ask forgiveness and offer to make amends for his having left in the first place.
I wonder if he truly returned. I wonder if his reasons for having run away were accepted by his owner. And I wonder if he was forgiven and freed. Freed not only from having to suffer punishment for having run away, but freed also from the bonds of slavery – as is every human’s right. Freed from the bonds of darkness which so often overtake each of us as we ourselves become slaves of the society in which we live.
I know that some of us may reject the letters of Paul because he accepts slavery as a given and also because he sees women as secondary to men; but I believe that if Paul were living today he would have adopted the contemporary view that slavery in any form is wrong and that women, like men, are created in God’s image and so are vital to society – not appendages to men. I believe this because the very idea that Paul proposes in this letter is revolutionary for its day. It stands all the philosophy and logic of his era on its head.
Paul identifies the runaway slave to his master – an action that means the slave can be tracked down and punished. Paul also asks that this master not exact punishment for the runaway’s offense – an action considered ridiculous and even threatening to the status quo. For what are we to do if everyone begins to forgive slaves, to redeem wrongdoers, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive, to make amends . . . to do good to those who have harmed us? How are we to live in a world which no longer counts offenses, which proposes newness? How are we to make sense of a society which believes that there is universal access to God?
Paul suggests something radical in this letter. He asks that this slave owner allow himself to be touched by Christ. And today, in these verses, he asks that we respond to our own challenges with courage and in the best possible spirit . . . the Spirit of Christ. Paul asks that we respond with fervor and that we rise to the highest potential placed in us. Paul asks that we dare to believe in a world where social class and power fall away. He asks that we give over our privilege and safety and share all that we have with those who are enslaved by the rigors of daily life. He asks that we give away rather than hoard. He asks that we become partners with all those we meet . . . even those we consider to be our slaves.
This is daring. This is big. This is the message brought by The Word to Paul and to the world. This is the Christ in action.
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