Another Friday with Phil
If you know some of my research interests, it will come as no surprise to you that the mention of “slaves” leads to me to think of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. One of the things I love about studying that little letter is that it allows me to imagine and get in touch with real people in real relationships in a real family, home, church, and community in the first century. It’s one thing to wax academic about what these texts mean. It’s another to conduct thought experiments with Phil and his household to see how it might all play out.
What if we sift Philemon and his household with the sieve of Mark 10? Before you think I’m letting the rest of us off the hook, I am not. This is going to be hard on Phil and his household. It is just as hard, in different dimensions, on me and my household. I’ll try to come back to that before we finish this post.
Let’s begin with Phil’s marriage to Lady Apphia. I assume they were husband and wife, but that detail is not necessary to carry through this analysis. It just makes it a bit simpler for the sake of the experiment.
If we read the divorce text at the beginning of the chapter, we will see that Phil is called to see Apphia as a person in her own right and not a utility for his convenience. She is a partner in the enterprise of the household and not a piece of attractive furniture. Her sexual functioning is not his property, nor is their marriage a mere contract. Apphia is his sister in Christ as well as his spouse and is thus an equal in this newly (re)constituted family.
If Philemon was a traditional Roman, upper-class, man, this was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more.
Let’s move to Phil’s relationship to Archippus. If Archippus is the adult son of Apphia and Phil, some changes are in order in that relationship as well. He is now also a brother in Christ to Phil. He is not merely a receptacle for Phil’s bequeathed honor and estate. As with Apphia, Phil’s power “over” his son must now be replaced by power “with” and “for” his offspring.
In a culture that regarded infanticide as a legitimate means of birth control and children as subhuman until after puberty, this, too, was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more!
It is obvious that Philemon is “rich,” not poor. He has enough wealth to own a home where a group of Jesus followers can meet regularly for worship and community life. He is rich enough to hold at least one enslaved person, and it is likely that his household contained at least several more enslaved persons. Paul addresses him as an “honorable” man who commands respect because of his power, position, privilege, and property.
This takes us to the story of the rich man in Mark 10. I would think that such a story would not go down well with Phil and other rich people in the early Jesus movement. It doesn’t appear that Paul asked Philemon or other wealthy patrons to sell all they had, give the proceeds to the poor, and to join Paul personally in the missionary enterprise. Paul clearly depended on the patronage of some well-off people and communities to do his work. The counsel of Mark 10:17-31 was not adopted wholesale.
This adaptation was not without its problems in some of the Pauline communities. The disparities in wealth and status in the Corinthian church caused no end of mischief. The rich arrived early for the love feast (because they didn’t have real jobs) and ate all the good food. The privileged claimed that their voices counted for more in the assembly – especially, it seems, the voices of some of the privileged women (but that’s another conversation). In Corinth, wealth was making it difficult for some members to enter the Kin(g)dom of God.
The concern for property was, I think, an issue for Philemon as well. It may be that Onesimus took some property or some cash when he escaped to find Paul in Ephesus. It would seem that this tension was a fairly big deal for Philemon, since Paul offers to pay the costs out of his own pocket (and then guilts Philemon into withdrawing his complaint about the “crime”).
At the least, Paul wants Philemon to see that mutuality in Christ trumps any concerns about personal property. Paul does not appear to require divestment of wealth as a condition for following Jesus (and Paul). But he does expect that wealth will be used for the well-being of the community and not for the benefit of the wealthy.
So, Phil, stop worrying about your money. If it bothers you so much, send another gift of cash along with Onesimus when you send him back to assist Paul in things that are far more important!
So, this “Good News” deconstructs Phil’s family relationships. It calls into question the importance of his power, position, privilege, and property. The Good News calls on Phil to put love for neighbor ahead of the demands of the honor and shame system of the culture. That would be more than enough work for a lifetime. But wait! There’s more!
Let’s take a little stroll back into Mark 9 for a moment. Phil, you know those wandering hands of yours (and anything else that might be wandering) that seem to find their way on to the bodies of several of your slaves? Cut it out or cut them off! You know those roving eyes of yours that linger a bit too long on your next-door neighbor’s wife as she rests in their courtyard? Give it up or gouge them out!
Given the norms of elite sexual behavior in Greco-Roman culture, these boundaries would have made Phil the laughingstock of the local bathhouse. But wait! There’s more!
Finally, we come to the enslaved persons. First of all, they cannot be regarded as sexual, physical, and commercial utilities at the disposal of the slaveholder. Jesus followers don’t get to treat anyone that way.
Second, there’s this “ransom for many” business. The language of “ransom” in the first century, as we noted in a previous post, is really the language of manumission for enslaved persons. Phil, how can Jesus release the enslaved from bondage, but you will not? I think that’s the question that stands behind Paul’s request to Phil that he would treat Onesimus as “more than a brother.”
Enslaved persons were a substantial part of the wealth in first-century households. The release of the enslaved persons would likely crash the household economy. And the rich people would have to start doing actual human work. The last would become first, and the first last, in very practical ways. Phil would have the chance to become “great” in Jesus’ terms because he would start serving whether he liked it or not.
Is it any wonder Jesus says all that stuff about camels and needles’ eyes?
I find this experiment of processing Philemon and his household with the Markan “moral sieve” instructive and terrifying. I don’t have actual enslaved people under my roof. But I find it very hard to give up Amazon purchases even though I view the wealth of Jeff Bezos detestable. It pisses me off to have to look at the labels on my clothes, investigate how they are sourced, and determine if the clothing is ethically produced (it hardly ever is).
We made a commitment at our house almost three years ago to maintain a whole-food, plant-based diet. I did that because one day I realized that I couldn’t treat animals as edible automata. I’m not evangelistic about this choice, but it works for us. At the same time, those choices have reduced our options for socializing, made us the ongoing topic of conversation among family and neighbors, and made grocery shopping an experience in mindfulness.
If being modestly vegan takes that much effort, what does it mean to be a Mark 10 disciple? Phil, I’m not judging. I’m empathizing.
It seems that at least some of Paul’s churches chose the route of moderate accommodation to the culture. I think that’s why we find the tables of household duties in Ephesians and Colossians – tables that ratify the larger culture and make no mention of Markan discipleship. That is certainly why Christian elites continued to hold and deal in enslaved persons, in and through the Church in many cases, for centuries.
In our own context, we know how much effort, theology, and violence have gone into maintaining White Male Supremacy in and through Christian churches in America. The resources for this discussion are now voluminous. But at the least, I hope you will read Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, Robert Jones’ White Too Long, and Kristin Kobes DuMez’s Jesus and John Wayne. These works give depth and data to the White Christian Church’s complicity in the American project of White Male Supremacy.
So, Phil, what do we do about this? I’m reflecting on how best to make reparations for the rest of my life – to Indigenous people, Black people, Brown people, AAPI people. I don’t think I’m going to sell it all and give the proceeds to the people to whom that wealth is owed. But I also don’t think I can continue to do little or nothing that has a dollar sign attached to it.
References and Resources
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361.
McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.” https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/the-center-of-atonement/.
Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.
Seeley, David. “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 35, no. 3, Brill, 1993, pp. 234–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/1561541.
Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.
Van Oyen, Geert. “The Vulnerable Authority of the Author of the Gospel of Mark. Re-Reading the Paradoxes.” Biblica, vol. 91, no. 2, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2010, pp. 161–86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614975.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.