“In this way, therefore,” Jesus says to the large crowds who were going about with him, “each of you who does not renounce control over all of what belongs to them will not be able to be my disciple” (Luke 14:33, my translation). It’s easy enough for me as a privileged White American male to imagine what this means for Philemon. But how does this work for Onesimus?
I have read, studied, and taught this little letter frequently over the last decade. I could spend three months of Bible study on the letter and still have more to discuss. How, then, can I pretend to capture anything in twelve to fifteen minutes at a worship service? The preacher needs to pick a lens through which to focus such a message. In my time and space, the most appropriate lens for that focus is the voice, experience, and story of Onesimus.
Onesimus does not have a voice in the letter. Of course, only Paul and his colleagues have an actual voice in the letter. But it is addressed to Philemon as a subject and tends to handle Onesimus as more of an object. That’s certainly a major drawback to the letter. That drawback should be acknowledged in any sermon or message based on the text. I am being presumptuous in even attempting to give Onesimus a voice through my preaching, but I believe that sin is less grievous than allowing Onesimus to remain mute.
Philemon has enslaved Onesimus in his Colossian household. Onesimus has escaped that enslavement and fled to Paul. Paul is imprisoned, likely in Ephesus, about a hundred miles away. As I read the letter, I believe Onesimus became a Jesus follower during his time with Paul. He had fled to Ephesus in order to appeal to Paul as a “friend of the enslaver.” Sometimes, such associates might intervene on behalf of the enslaved person and ask for lenient treatment if the enslaved person would return.
It seems that Onesimus got far more than he expected or desired. Paul became his father in the faith. The words in verse ten sound like birth language. Onesimus has been reborn as a Jesus follower and as a member of Paul’s family. Since Paul referred to Philemon as “my brother” in verse seven, this means that Onesimus and Philemon are now “beloved brothers” (see verse 16) in Christ.
We know all this because Paul sent a letter to Philemon in order to resolve the broken relationship between these new siblings. It seems clear from the letter that Onesimus came back to Colossae along with the letter. It may be that Onesimus was commissioned to perform the letter aloud for the Colossian church at a worship service. I don’t think that’s the case, but it is possible. In any event, he was present when it was read.
I want to linger on that last sentence. If Philemon responded to the letter and the situation as a typical Roman head of household, things would go badly for Onesimus. At the very least he would be whipped severely. He would certainly be put in chains, at least for a while. He would probably be physically branded as a “runaway,” with that brand applied to one of his cheeks. Depending on Philemon’s mood and ownership philosophy, there was a fair chance that Onesimus would be publicly executed, most likely by crucifixion.
These would not be extreme responses. Bloody beatings, physical mutilation, and public execution were the standard responses to enslaved persons who were captured and brought back to their enslavers. Any other response would not be merely unusual. Any other response would be nothing short of a miracle.
So, why did Onesimus risk that response? Why did Onesimus return? That question still drives me to study and pray over this little letter.
Perhaps Paul, as Onesimus’ “father in faith” ordered him to return and work things out with his new sibling in Christ. Paul acknowledges that he has such authority over Philemon (verse 8). Paul certainly believed he had such authority over Onesimus as well, his child and co-worker in Christ. Paul, however, wanted Philemon to respond “on the basis of love,” not coercion. I believe Paul would apply the same standard to Onesimus.
I assume that Onesimus chose to return to Colossae. Paul likely suggested this course of action but left it up to Onesimus to decide “on the basis of love.” For Onesimus, Jesus’ words in Luke 14 were neither metaphor nor hyperbole. He was “hating” even life itself. He was likely going to Colossae to bear a cross. He was renouncing control over all that belonged to him in order to be a Jesus follower – in order to call a beloved sibling to the realities of life together in Christ.
Reading this little letter is a dangerous spiritual and moral adventure. Onesimus, the enslaved person, had no obligation to do anything to benefit Onesimus, his enslaver. The oppressed in principle are never obliged to help or save their oppressors. In fact, a correct reading of 1 Corinthians 7:21 indicates that enslaved Christians should gain their freedom if the opportunity presents itself. (The NRSV puts this option in a footnote rather than in the main text. I will post some information that makes the case for the alternative).
White Christian preachers have used Paul’s Letter to Philemon for centuries to undergird White Christian biblical arguments in favor of Black chattel slavery. That interpretation is clearly wrong and even heretical. But I don’t want to inadvertently allow it to sneak into this post or my thinking. And yet, Onesimus returns to Colossae. He returns to offer Philemon a chance at real life as a Jesus follower. And he does so at the risk of his own life.
Onesimus is the character in this drama who lives as a Jesus follower. He has willingly surrendered control of all that belongs to him – including the life he has gained through his escape. He faces the cross as a concrete reality and not just as the hardship of giving up chocolate for Lent. He has counted the costs of following and set out on the journey anyway. I have followed this arc of the story a dozen times over. And I am stunned by Onesimus’ courageous love every time.
There is so much wrong with Paul’s approach in this letter – at least from my contemporary point of view. Paul wheedles and cajoles. He flatters and fauns. He manipulates and shames. But he never directly asks Philemon to renounce enslavement – either of Onesimus in particular or of people in general. This letter is no treatise on the rights of humanity. And Paul is no proto-abolitionist. I wish Paul had done much better in this letter. Centuries of human suffering might have turned out differently if he had.
Yet, it would seem that the drama had some sort of happy ending. If not, I doubt we would have this letter in front of us. If Philemon had rejected Paul’s request, I doubt that either Onesimus or the letter would have survived. I’m not sure if Onesimus was freed, but I think he was. I’m not so sure about other enslaved persons in Philemon’s household.
We can be certain that this letter had little positive effect on Christian slaveholding from the first to the nineteenth centuries. In fact, it seems that the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians as well as First Timothy walk back any Christian progress that might have been made regarding human enslavement. I fear that the second and third generations of Christians were unwilling to risk persecution by the Roman Empire in response to any efforts to upend or reform the Roman system of enslavement. The rhetoric of the Lukan account reflects this cautious retrenchment. An exception can be found in the Book of Revelation, but its setting as a response to persecution simply makes my point.
What belongs to me that I must renounce in order to be a faithful Jesus follower? I probably won’t have to imitate Onesimus, but the question remains. Perhaps we can flip the question on its head for a moment. What has such a hold on me that I am not free to follow Jesus? That’s the real issue for Philemon, the one that Onesimus feels called to address. As long as Philemon was enslaved by his role as enslaver, he was not free to follow Jesus, no matter what he might say or do.
Do my possessions possess me? Does my anxiety about my own life keep me in bondage to sin, death, and evil? Do systems that privilege me actually keep me less than human in the process? Yes and yes and yes.
“The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life,” Bonhoeffer writes in the Call to Discipleship. “the call of Christ, [one’s] baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day [the Christian] encounters new temptations,” Bonhoeffer continues, “and every day [the Christian] must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake. The wounds and scars [the Christian] receives in the fray,” Bonhoeffer concludes, “are living tokens of this participation in the cross of [our] Lord” (page 99).
The whole thing scares me to death…
References and Resources
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship, (1937) 1979.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III, The Gospel of Luke, 2018.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 1992.
McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, 2020.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke, 2006.
Tiroyabone, Obusitswe. “Reading Philemon with Onesimus in the postcolony: exploring a postcolonial runaway slave hypothesis.” Acta Theologica 2016, no. supp24 (2016): 225-236.