First of All
I noted above that the term for “child” in this text can just as easily be used to identify an enslaved person. That connection takes me to another of my interests, the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon in Paul’s little letter.
It’s too easy for us as Bible readers to experience Jesus’ words in the gospels as happening (to coin a phrase) “long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” But the people who heard the Markan composition, and Jesus followers in the generation preceding them, had to work out what Jesus’ words meant in terms of their behavior and how they treated one another.
If, for example, Philemon heard from Paul and understood the Good News of God’s unconditional love for him and for the cosmos in Jesus the Messiah, then nothing in Philemon’s life could remain the same. His view of himself, as we heard earlier from Anthony Campbell, would be flipped on its head. His relationships with others would occur in an entirely new framework. His commitments to power, privilege, position, and property would be definitively deconstructed.
If the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, is true, then nothing can remain the same. That would include Philemon’s relationship with and response to Onesimus.
“If one desires to be first,” Jesus tells the squabbling disciples, “that one shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b, my translation). Philemon was the paterfamilias and the slaveholder. That’s a typical image of “first” in Greco-Roman culture. Onesimus was an enslaved person – the paradigm image of what it meant to be “last.” If there is any situation in which Jesus’ discipleship teaching should have traction, this is it.
In Paul’s little letter, Paul makes it clear that Philemon’s trust in Jesus has produced the fruits of faithfulness in the life of the congregation in Colossae. Paul urges Philemon to continue to respond to the Gospel of love with works of love in the case of his response to the actions of Onesimus. Paul prays that “the partnership of your faithfulness might effectively generate in recognition [of the Lord Jesus] all that which is honorable among us toward Christ’s purposes” (Philemon 6, my translation).
Paul expects the new life which Philemon has experienced and continues to experience to result in some specific behaviors that give evidence of their partnership in the gospel. At the present moment, those behaviors have to do with how he will respond to the return of Onesimus to the community. The summary of Paul’s expectation is in verse 17. “If, therefore, you count me as a partner (and you certainly do, welcome him as me” (my translation).
The word for “welcome” has the literal sense of “take toward.” This is not a grudging tolerance or a mere passive acknowledgement. The word, and Paul’s expectation, is much more like the way that Jesus “takes” a child and gives that child standing in the midst of the community. Just as Jesus tenderly embraces that child, so Paul expects Philemon to embrace Onesimus as a beloved brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 16).
Paul plays on the ambiguity in the terms for “child” and “slave” as well in his little letter. He acknowledges that Onesimus has been enslaved. He also refers to Onesimus as his “child” whom he has birthed into new life in Christ during Paul’s Ephesian imprisonment. Paul is “father” both to Onesimus and also to Philemon, the one who owes Paul his very life (Philemon 19). They are brothers in Christ and in Paul!
The congregation at Colossae witnessed the working out of Jesus’ “first and last” instructions to his disciples. Philemon needed to renounce his power of life and death, or at least physical punishment, over Onesimus if he was to obey Paul (and Jesus). Philemon had to give up his honor status, his position, in order to embrace Onesimus as a brother. He had to relinquish his property – both that which Onesimus might have taken and Onesimus himself as an enslaved person. And he had to surrender his privilege in order to embrace Onesimus now as an equal partner in Paul’s gospel mission.
I am walking through this in such detail in order for us to appreciate that Jesus’ teaching to the disciples was not theory or poetry. Christians, at least in Pauline congregations, were expected to put this teaching to work in their lives in Christian community. The powerful were called upon to relinquish that power for the sake of their partnership in the gospel.
At the beginning of his two-volume work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright spends a hundred pages on Onesimus, Philemon, and Paul as a case study for how the Gospel works out in these communities. “Here we have, in fact,” Wright argues, “the concrete outworking of Paul’s theology of the cross – reflecting the same theme in 2 Corinthians 5 itself, written probably not long after Philemon” (Paul, page 20).
Because of this gospel of New Creation, Wright argues, the question of the social relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, and the status of each is “radically outflanked” (Wright, Paul, page 20). The “last” becomes first, and the “first” becomes last – and servant.
The one who was socially dead, the enslaved person, has been made alive. Onesimus has been “birthed” into the faith just as Philemon received his very life from Paul’s preaching. The one who was most fully alive, the honorable paterfamilias, must die to himself and to the world in order to live in the partnership of Christ.
As I discussed the Mark 9 text with a group of lay preachers this week, we came to a difficult realization. If we remain focused on verses 33 through 37, the text provides a marvelous opportunity to focus on the unconditional and prevenient love of God in Christ for us. As I described in an earlier post, we can find ourselves in Jesus’ arms as beloved children of God. There is no greater or more life-changing news that that!
If we stay with those verses, it’s all well and good. But we also have verses 30 to 32. All of this happens under the shadow of the cross. This transformative, revolutionary, destabilizing, re-orienting Divine Love provokes a violent pushback from the powers of this world. That violent pushback begins in my own heart – the place where my desires for self-idolatry originate. The move from first to last is the death of the Old Self.
“I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes to the Galatian Christians. “It is no longer ‘I’ who lives but Christ who lives in me.” The death of the ‘I,’ (the ‘ego’ in the Greek) is part of how I participate in, exercise partnership in the cross of Jesus Christ. “And the life I now live in the flesh,” Paul continues, “I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).
The change in relationship between Onesimus and Philemon involved a variety of “deaths” for Philemon. Welcoming Onesimus as a beloved brother happened at the foot of the cross or not at all.
This case study has been conducted so far from the position of one who is “first” and is called now to be “last” and “servant.” The text calls me to look at my own faith walk and to assess where I am “first.” For me, that is nearly everywhere. I am White. I am male. I am educated in a Europa-centric system. I am not impoverished. I have professional status and standing. I have all the habits and assumptions that go with this mash-up of “first.” Following Jesus, for me, is mostly about daily becoming “last” and “servant.”
In the next chapter of Mark’s composition, by the way, we will see how this works out for one of the Firsts who comes to Jesus for advice. The rich man, whom Jesus loves, is unable to die to the “First” of his wealth and goes away deeply troubled. If I’m looking for myself in the larger story, there’s a place for me.
I am part of a denomination that has spent a lot of time in the company of the cultural Firsts. If we are to be a factor in the future of this culture, we will have to figure out how to embrace being Last. Jemar Tisby, in his book The Color of Compromise, itemizes some of the ways that we can embrace being Last in order to be faithful.
We can, as individuals, congregations and denominations begin making Reparations to Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI communities. We can take down Confederate monuments and dismantle other symbols that continue to make “White” equal to “First.” We can learn from the Black Church how to be faithful without having to be First. We White Christians have no idea how to do that. We are so wedded to White Christian Nationalism that for many White Christians there is no daylight between such Nationalist idolatry and their understanding of the Christian faith.
Tisby has several other suggestions that I would commend for your consideration. “This much is clear,” Tisby writes, “the American church has compromised with racism. Countless Christians have ignored, obscured, or misunderstood this history. But the excuses are gone. The information cannot be hidden. The only question that remains,” he concludes, “is what the church will do now that its complicity in racism has been exposed” (page 212).
Will we who are powerful embrace being Last of all and Servant of all?
This post has focused on the “First” who is called to be “Last”? What does it look like to start out “Last” like Onesimus? Let’s think about that in the next post.
References and Resources
Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.
Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.
Bailey, James L. “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16.” Word and World, Number 1, Winter 1995, pages 58-67.
Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.
Goff, et. al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 526–545. DOI: 10.1037/a0035663.
Malina, Bruce J. (1996). The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Malina; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (1992). Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Ruge-Jones, Philip. Cross in Tensions: Luther’s Theology of the Cross as Theologico-social Critique (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 91). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God 4). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition