Text Study for Luke 14:25-35 (Part Three)

“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.

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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.

Text Study for Luke 14:25-35 (Part Two)

How do we get from “hate your family and even your own life” (Luke 14:26) to “give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33)? Let’s start with verse 33, which is the punchline for this paragraph. This will involve some close reading of the Greek text, but I think it will be worth effort for faithful interpretation.

“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). Many scholars suggest that our passage is largely a composition by the Lukan author since it doesn’t show up in the other Synoptic accounts. That matters for our interpretation (whether one accepts that scholarship or not) because it means that this is a specific concern for the community to which the Lukan author is writing.

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The verse has a “therefore” (Greek = oun). Therefore (ha, ha), it draws a conclusion based on what precedes it. Too often in our casual reading we can miss these connective words. But they are crucial to an accurate reading and faithful interpretation of the text. For the Lukan author, this verse is not a bumper sticker phrase tacked on to the end of some other random verses. This is a small conclusion to a rhetorical chain of thought and should be treated as such.

The verse begins with “in this way” (Greek = outos). For the Lukan author, the previous verses describe why it is that disciples must take the action in verse 33. There is something about hating family and life, and about counting the cost, that leads to this idea of “renouncing control over what belongs to them.” That connection is not obvious or intuitive. It takes some hard thinking and reflection.

Let’s look at the verb I translate as “renounce control over” (Greek = apotassetai). The root verb (Greek = tasso) can mean “to appoint to or establish in an office.” It can also be used to describe putting someone in charge of something. It can mean, finally, to “order, fix, determine, or appoint.” The verb has to do with determining the fate or status of something or someone. It has the sense of control – not merely ownership.

When we get to the verb in our text, we’ve added the preposition apo. This preposition has the sense of a move away from something or someone. That’s how we get to the lexical meanings of the verb. It can mean to say farewell to someone or something, to take leave of someone or something. In an expanded sense, it means to renounce or give up someone or something. This moves us closer to the connection between verses 26 and 33 in our text.

I would suggest that to “hate” family or life itself is not to emotionally reject those loved ones. As I noted in the previous post, the psychological content of “hate” comes to the fore for post-Enlightenment individualists. Instead, when Jesus uses the verb “hate” (or at least when the Lukan author uses it), Jesus talks about saying goodbye to, moving away from, giving up allegiance to someone or something.

I think, however, the sense is stronger than that. Verse 33 says that disciples say goodbye to reliance on controlling things and people around them as the source of their life. Disciples cannot serve two masters. We’re going to come to that statement in Luke 16:13. It is instructive that this verse also contains the verb “to hate.” When we serve a master (the Greek is the word for “Lord”), the Lukan author says we will love the one and hate the other.

We can have that sort of allegiance to only one Lord. And in Luke 16, the choice is between God and “mammon.” We are going to study that text in a couple of weeks. Therefore, keep all this in mind as we go forward. We’re dealing with a major focus in this section of the Lukan account. The Lukan author is going to keep hammering at this emphasis and won’t really be finished with it until the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 (right before the Lukan Triumphal Entry).

Disciples say goodbye to the security and power we get from things (and people) we control. Disciples say goodbye to “power over” others as the means to abundant life. This brings us to the other important word in verse 33, the word the NRSV translates as “possessions.” That’s an acceptable translation, but I think it loses its edge in English. We tend to think exclusively about material possessions. I don’t think that’s a broad enough meaning for our text.

The base meaning of the word (Greek = huparchousin) is “to be present” or “to be at one’s disposal.” If we take the word apart, we get a literal meaning of “to rule over.” These possessions aren’t merely the stuff we have “at hand,” although that’s included. These possessions are the things we rule over, have power over, have control over. That can and often does extend beyond the material stuff we have in our closets and storage units.

Now we can zero in on the verses earlier in the pericope. Those who follow Jesus are called to “hate” family and life itself. If you look closely, you’ll notice that no one is called to “hate” their husband. The imagined person being addressed is a prototypical paterfamilias, a Roman head of the household. Such a person was always an adult man. That adult man, in legal theory in the Augustan empire, had the powers of life and death over all the members of the household. This text isn’t for everyone. It’s for the men who are really in control of, who have power over, everyone else.

The possessions of such a household included dependent parents, spouse and children, and enslaved persons, as well as the non-human inventory of the estate. The Imperial definition of authentic humanity was this free, adult, propertied, and powerful male – the master (“Lord”) of all he surveyed. Jesus calls disciples to say goodbye to all of these platforms of power over others and to embrace radical dependence upon God alone. It is no accident that this renunciation would then lead to cross-bearing, the deepest place of shame on the Imperial honor/shame scale.

Who is it who can contemplate building a watchtower for his vineyard or a new farm building? Both of those structures are acceptable translations of the Greek word purgos. The landless poor in the crowds following Jesus might labor in such a building project. But they are not going to plan or pay for such a structure. This image is salient to free, land-owning, property-controlling males who have power over others to carry out such a project.

Who is it who might fantasize about being a king and fielding a private army? It’s not the dependent elders, the wives and children, the (younger) brothers and sisters in the crowd. It’s those who actually have some of that power in their lives in the here and now. It is those with the means who would even bother to count the costs of such adventures. And the cost, if such a one wishes to follow Jesus, is to say goodbye to that power and control.

In light of this close reading of our text, I am inclined to use the Second Reading, from Paul’s Letter to Philemon, as the basis for my sermon this week. I love that letter and have studied it intensively and extensively for the last ten years. It shows up just this once in the Revised Common Lectionary, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to expose listeners to this remarkable text. More to the point, however, this letter gives us multiple case studies of the connection between discipleship and saying goodbye to what and who we control.

The first case concerns Philemon. I imagine him to be both the paterfamilias of that household in Colossae and the head of the little house-church there. We don’t know if Apphia is his wife and Archippus is his son. But that’s a fair conjecture. We do know that the Christian assembly gathers regularly at his house. And we can be pretty certain that this letter was read aloud to that assembly in Philemon’s house while Philemon sat and listened.

We can debate just what Paul was asking Philemon to do. But it is clear that Paul is asking Philemon to say goodbye to his control over Onesimus as his “possession.” Whether that led to formal manumission of Onesimus’ enslaved status is not clear from the letter. But Paul asks Philemon to regard Onesimus “no longer as a slave” but rather as a beloved brother in Christ. Philemon, if you do not say goodbye to what and who you have power over, you cannot follow Jesus. Therefore, dear brother, what will you do?

The second case concerns Onesimus. I want to address our brother, Onesimus, more fully in my next post. For now, we can reflect on the concrete realities in the case of Philemon and how those realities connect to our lives. To what must I say goodbye in order to make room for following Jesus as the highest priority in my life? What will that choice (made daily, as we read elsewhere in Luke) cost me? Will I pay that price?

References and Resources

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.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke, 2006.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 6); October 17, 2021

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.

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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.

Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 6); September 26, 2021

If Loving My Neighbor is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right

It’s now more than twelve years since my denomination, the ELCA, moved to open our fellowships, our communion tables, and our pulpits to members of the LGBTQIA+ community. My performance during that small civil war in the denomination was neither heroic nor effective. I wish I had been a more courageous and forthright leader. I’m glad the outcome didn’t depend on the likes of me.

I argued repeatedly that I did not want to discuss homosexuality and the Church in theoretical and hypothetical terms. I wanted people to think about two children of the congregation of the same gender. They were involved in Sunday School, Confirmation instruction, youth group for all ages, regular worship, Bible study, and numerous service projects in the name of Jesus. They were real “stars” in the life of the congregation.

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Those two children became adults, fell in love, and wanted to be married in the Church. I urged people to think about those two (still theoretical and hypothetical, I admit) children before coming to some sort of decision on the issue at hand. I wasn’t interested in positions which weren’t required to take seriously the real lives of real human beings.

The response I received was both stunning and predictable. “I don’t want to confuse feelings and facts, Pastor,” one parishioner said repeatedly. “I don’t want compassion,” he argued, “I want the Truth. Don’t muddy the waters by brining real people into the conversation.”

I wonder what he might have done in conversations with Jesus about loving outsiders, while a small child sat on Jesus’ lap. The question only occurs to me now in the rearview mirror, but it’s pertinent to this week’s text. It seems clear to me in this text that when being “right” conflicts somehow with loving the neighbor, including the “outsider,” then loving the neighbor trumps being “right.”

Thus, the title of this post.

We will go to extraordinary lengths to protect our power, privilege, position, and property. That’s obvious when it comes to the history of violence associated with White Supremacy. It’s a truism when it comes to assessing the January 6 insurrection. It is also true, unfortunately, in the theological arena. The latest lie promulgated to protect White Male primacy is that empathy is a sin, when carried too far.

In two articles on the desiringgod.org site, Joe Rigney has argued that if love of neighbor seems to conflict with the Truth, then love of neighbor must give way. In our current setting, at least among us “liberals,” (happy to be one and more, thank you very much), love of neighbor is used, according to Rigney, to justify all sorts of sinful conduct and thought. More on that in a moment.

Rigney is president of Bethlehem College and Seminary. “Bethlehem: Education in Serious Joy” is the banner on the institutional web site. The college and seminary appear to fancy themselves as legitimate heirs of the intellectual tradition of C. S. Lewis. It was Lewis, after all, who wrote in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, that “joy is the serious business of heaven.”

Rigney exploits this supposed kinship with Lewis in his two-part article on the dangers to Christians of feeling too much and thinking too little. He adopts the persona and style of Screwtape, lead character in Lewis’ delightfully ironic little book, The Screwtape Letters. I am more than a little stunned by the smug arrogance of this tactic, but that’s another story.

The first “letter” is called “Killing Them Softly: Compassion that Warms Satan’s Heart.” Thus, if Rigney can hijack the title of a Seventies soul song, then I have no problem using another one to counter his cunning. Initially Rigney uses Screwtape to warn us that even compassion can be “cannibalized” to do the work of the Evil One. Capable tempters will make compassion subservient to “truth,” and support for the sufferer will then become instruction that minimizes suffering.

So far, so good. Rigney’s second article is called “The Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts through Compassion.” He contrasts compassion (suffering with another person) to empathy (suffering in another person). This suffering “in” can become so powerful that it leads us to sin in the name of comforting the afflicted. Compassion, according to Rigney, seeks to help the sufferer with the Truth. Empathy seeks to help the sufferer with mere emotions. Compassion, he says, focuses on what is good for the sufferer. Empathy focuses on what makes the sufferer feel better.

Rigney goes on to accuse sufferers of holding their neighbors for “ransom” by demanding unreasonable love. “We want their unreasonable demands to become ungodly demands,” Screwtape says for Rigney. “Anyone who refuses to jump through the hoops,” Screwtape concludes, “isn’t being empathetic.” Compassion means going into quicksand to rescue someone, but with a rope tied always to the Truth (outside the pit). Empathy, Rigney suggests, is entering the pit with no rope.

Rigney and his like could appeal to certain trends in the social sciences (although that would seem to be self-defeating). Paul Bloom wrote an excellent book entitled Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. It may well be that Rigney and company have taken their analysis from Bloom and his colleagues without proper attribution.

Bloom has several contrarian concerns in his book. He worries that what we call empathy has been transformed into a claim for rights. If we experience the suffering of others too fully, we may actually run the other direction rather than offering care. In short, Bloom notes that empathy is more of a feeling response than a conscious decision. So he really pleads that we would seat our empathetic experiences in a larger framework of what he calls “rational compassion.”

“It’s not that empathy itself automatically leads to kindness,” Bloom writes. “Rather, empathy has to connect to kindness that already exists.” He contrasts empathy with compassion. Compassion, he writes, “does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

Bloom is not arguing for a lack of compassionate action — quite the opposite. But Rigney and his colleagues do precisely that and thus completely misunderstand what’s going on here.

We can hear clearly the (unacknowledged) basis for Rigney’s argument. “The problems we face as a society and as individuals are rarely due to lack of empathy,” Bloom suggests. “Actually, they are often due to too much of it.” Bloom is concerned that the suffering of the world may overwhelm our capacity for compassion, shut down our helping faculties, and send us fleeing into moral oblivion. His argument is backed by research and good thinking.

Bloom’s argument is not, however, particularly compelling. There’s lots of contradictory evidence, study, and are research in this regard. Well and good, Bloom says. That’s how science works. But it’s not how Truth works for Rigney, who bastardizes Bloom’s work, whether he knows is or not.

“By elevating empathy over compassion as the superior virtue, there is now an entire culture devoted to the total immersion of empathy,” Screwtape declares. “Books, articles, and social media all trumpet the importance of checking one’s own beliefs, values, judgments, and reason at the door of empathy.” This immersion untethers us from the Truth and makes us “eminently steerable” toward the Evil One. Empathy thus becomes the ultimate selfishness, in this view, focused on the “feelings” of the sufferer with no concern for the “good” of the one who suffers.

The accusation, according to Rigney is that we have moved from “feelings are important” to believing that “feelings are all that’s important.” In that universe, caring human beings become self-absorbed moral monsters who do Satan’s bidding by subjecting sufferers to domineering dimensions of care in order to feel better about themselves.

What’s the problem Rigney is trying to fix here? As Mark Wingfield notes, the real agenda comes out in further commentary, discussion, and amplification. Inordinate empathy has led us (well, some of us), for example, to move from regarding homosexuality as a sin contrary to Divine intention to regarding homosexuality as a gift from God. According to folks in Rigney’s camp, how does that happen? Inordinate empathy.

I find myself racing back these twelve years. Nothing new here; nothing to see. “I don’t want to confuse feelings and facts, Pastor,” Rigney and his crowd say. “I don’t want empathy,” they argue, “I want the Truth. Don’t muddy the waters by bringing real people into the conversation.”

The problems with this perspective are manifold. We have here a parade example of the danger of the single story, referenced in an earlier post. Rigney and his ilk argue that empathy will cloud our judgment and lead us into sin. Yet, it is far more likely that our particular take on The Truth provides camouflage for our interests rather than an interest in Reality. The notion that defenders of the Truth are immune to the delusion that afflicts the empathetic is morally arrogant and epistemologically naïve.

It is not the case, whether in the Christian scriptures or in the human heart, that feelings and facts can somehow be separated into isolated containers. Emotions are constitutive of thoughts. When we think, our cognitive and emotional centers light up in tandem and partnership. The first Christians, as first-century Mediterranean folks, understood that thought is always “emotion-fused.” It is an Enlightenment conceit that feeling and fact can be tracked into separate lanes.

If there is anything clear from Jesus’ ministry in the gospel accounts, it is that when being loving and being right are in tension, love trumps being right. How else can we read “The one who is not against us is for us”? The unnamed exorcist may not be getting it all right, but he is doing the Lord’s work. And that’s enough. Demands for higher standards are like offending limbs and wandering eyes. Get rid of them, not the neighbor.

We live in a time when at least some of us have been trained to view all Truth claims with suspicion. Somewhere behind those claims is likely lurking a desire to dominate. Assertions of “my Truth” are much more likely to result in sin than surrenders to “too much” empathy. Warning that empathy is a sin takes us into a sort of Christian Orwellian use of language which is hard to manage.

Really. I’ll take “too much” empathy over “the Real Truth” any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I trust Jesus to sort it out if I have loved too much.

References and Resources

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Rigney, Joe. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-enticing-sin-of-empathy.

Wingfield, Mark. https://baptistnews.com/article/have-you-heard-the-one-about-empathy-being-a-sin/#.YUyOiLhKiUk.

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 6); September 19, 2021

Last of All

I have been using the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, as partially described in Paul’s little letter, as a case study of how Jesus’ words in Mark 9 might work out in an actual setting between Jesus followers. The call to Philemon in this regard is, I think, relatively straightforward. Paul encourages Philemon to relinquish his power over Onesimus and to welcome Onesimus as a beloved brother both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Commentators debate whether that means that Paul is asking Philemon to ratify Onesimus’ freedom from enslavement. I think that is the minimum for which Paul is asking, and that Philemon does comply with Paul’s request. That’s part of what “the cross” looks like for Philemon, and we could spend even more time imagining the cultural, social, political, familial, and personal earthquakes that result.

But let’s not.

Why does Onesimus return to Colossae and risk possible torture, disfigurement, and/or death? Why does he come back to the place of his enslavement when he could just as easily have stayed with Paul or moved on to greener pastures? I think he comes back because this is what “the cross” looks like for Onesimus in this situation. Having said that, I want to be very careful to explain what I mean.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

All of Jesus’ passion teachings in the Markan composition have to do with the nature and exercise of power in the life of the disciples. Jesus calls us to understand that the nature of power is always “positional.” If one has power “over” others, then as a disciple one is called to renounce that power over others in the name of Jesus and for the sake of neighbor love. That is the challenge facing Philemon. And that is the challenge that faces White American Christians in our time.

That’s a simple idea, but it’s damnably hard in practice. As has often been noted, the powerful experience equality as loss. That true because it is a loss – a loss of power over others and the privilege, position, and property that accrue to that power. For example, we White people experience so-called Affirmative Action as a loss because it makes us compete with all other people on an even playing field, and we won’t do as well as we did when we had a monopoly on the playing field.

If one is oppressed by others, then Jesus’ words in Mark 9 take on a different dynamic. Let me think about this as I imagine the situation of Onesimus. First, I am sure that Onesimus returns to Colossae voluntarily. Just as Paul did not make Philemon’s agreement a matter of obedience but rather something voluntary, so I am sure Paul applied the same deference to Onesimus. Otherwise, Paul could not have regarded them as equals in his family of faith.

Onesimus, therefore, has the power to choose to return or not. He uses that power to return, in spite of the potential risk to his safety. There may have been some legal reasons in the Roman system that made returning more advantageous to Paul, but Paul was already in custody and headed toward a hearing in Rome. As it turned out, Paul’s cause in that action did not succeed. In short, you can’t get more dead than dead. So, I don’t think the legal argument has much weight here.

I think Onesimus returns (along with Paul’s little letter and a small delegation from Paul) to provoke a crisis in the life of the Colossian congregation and in Philemon’s life of faith. It is certain that Onesimus did not return in order to apologize, beg forgiveness, and return to his former station. If that had been the case, Paul would have written a quite different letter. We know that because we have examples of such letters, such as the letter of Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus, regarding a somewhat similar situation (see https://www.bartleby.com/9/4/1103.html).

Onesimus does not return in order to be “nice.” Jesus does not talk about first/last issues in Mark 9 because Jesus wants his followers to be “nice.” This is about how disciples are to exercise power. And when we exercise power appropriately, we will destabilize the existing power structures. That’s why the paragraph about serving is preceded by a teaching about the cross. It’s not being “nice” that gets Jesus crucified. It’s about challenging the way in which power “over” is used as the only model of relationship. Onesimus does that to Philemon.

Onesimus does not return in order to punish Philemon. Rather, I would argue that he returns on the basis of Christian love. It is not a loving thing to leave me in a place where I blithely exercise power over others without thought or consequence. The idolatry of power over others makes me, as the power-wielder, subhuman. We human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, were made to use power for the sake of the Other. When we use it for ourselves, we degrade ourselves, eventually to the point of ceasing to be authentically human.

Onesimus comes to confront Philemon about power and to set him free from his inhumanity. If following Jesus is the clearest path to full and authentic humanity (and I think it is), then slaveholding is a clear deviation from that path.

Therefore, I believe Onesimus comes to destabilize, disorient, and deconstruct Philemon’s world – and to do so for the sake of love. If Onesimus (and Paul and his colleagues) make Philemon (and the rest of the congregation) uncomfortable, that’s a good thing. Would it be loving to abandon Philemon to his self-delusion? I don’t think so.

It’s a simplistic illustration, but it works for me. Is it more loving for my spouse to point out the lettuce stuck in my teeth before I go into a hundred-person Zoom meeting (even though I have that initial twinge of irritation at being criticized)? Or is it more loving for her to leave me in my comfortable ignorance, only to discover later as I review the video that I looked like I was growing a garden in my mouth? For me, the answer is obvious, no matter how I might feel in the moment of critique.

When Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI Christians challenge me in my unthinking racism, are they doing damage to me? No. I am uncomfortable. It is painful. I am forced to look at things about myself that I don’t like. I have to change not only some details about my behavior but my whole view of the world through White Supremacist lenses. That’s no fun for me, and my automatic response is angry rejection. But would it be more loving for others to abandon me to my sin and move on? No.

I want to say right way that I don’t think it’s the “job” of others to educate me about my own racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, classism, ageism, or any of the numerous other failings in my character and my worldview. Unlike Philemon (who may not have had access to many resources to encourage his reflection), I have access to a whole world of stories, experiences, history, data, reflection, theory, theology, and encouragement in this regard. I have a responsibility to seek out those resources – and to know that when I feel uncomfortable, that’s a sign that someone is trying to love me into my fuller humanity.

By the way, I think that Emmanuel Acho’s book, listed in the “References and Resources,” is an excellent beginning to precisely such a conversation.

If someone is oppressed, abused, and dehumanized, the most loving expression of power at that moment may well be escape (where that is possible and safe). There is no obligation for anyone to “educate” oppressors, abusers, and tyrants. That’s an analysis and a decision that the person in that position must engage in the moment. I have no right to even speak further about that.

Onesimus is in a somewhat different position. He comes with the new power of the gospel and a community that is constituted by that power. He does not come alone. Together, he and his colleagues confront Philemon and the Colossian congregation with the deconstructing news that every element of life needs to change for those who follow Jesus. For those with power over, that means relinquishing that power. If that relinquishing happens, then the oppressed might begin to think about reconciliation (but not before).

Thus, “the cross” for Philemon looks like relinquishing his “power over” others. He is invited to do so for the sake of the love of Christ – so he can refresh the hearts of the saints even more, to use Paul’s words. The cross which Onesimus has taken up is the one that will result either in a conversion of a slaveholder or the death of a former slave. For Philemon, the cross means being changed. For Onesimus, the cross means being the change.

When someone confronts me with the love of Christ and with my need for conversion, I need to learn the habit of appreciation rather than anger. When someone confronts the White Church with the love of Christ and the need for conversion, we are called to regard that confrontation as loving service, not as troublemaking. When we welcome such a one into our lives and conversations, we are welcoming Jesus and welcoming the One who sent him.

It is, therefore, a daily question for Jesus followers. How do I stand today in relation to power, and thus in relation to the Cross?

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.

Black, C. Clifton. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25-2/commentary-on-mark-930-37-7.

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.

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 5); September 19, 2021

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“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.

Black, C. Clifton. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25-2/commentary-on-mark-930-37-7.

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

Letter 17 — Letters to Phil, Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I was struck by one thing in particular in your last letter. “Of course,” you wrote, “in hindsight I can see that Onesimus is exceptional in his abilities and gifts. He is a valuable and useful servant of our Lord Jesus and a capable leader in the Church. So, I’m not surprised, now, that Paul wanted him to come and serve in the mission work while Paul was in prison.”

Phil, I have to ask something that will probably offend you. Do you find that this “exceptional slave” theory is a common view among members of the congregation there and elsewhere? We have something in our system of white supremacy in this culture (whether you actually do or not). It’s often referred to as the “exceptional negro” concept.

The whole idea is rooted in the assumption that, as a group, certain people are below some standard of being “normal.” In our system, “normal” is often still defined as being white, male, heterosexual, of northern European origin, and probably wealthy and educated in a modestly privileged setting.  People fitting some other descriptions are less than normal. Therefore, when the “less-thans” perform well in the system, it is regarded as surprising…as exceptional.

Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com

This frame of reference makes all sorts of hypocrisy and oppression not only possible but, well, “normal.” For eight years, we had a Black president and First Lady in the White House. That was hailed as a triumphant milestone in the fight against systemic racism and White supremacy. It was that. But it was also written off in subtle and not-so-subtle ways as exceptional.

The Obamas succeeded in a system created to block their success. When they succeeded, they were applauded for their appearance, their diction, their erudition, their graciousness, their skills, and many other things. All of those accolades were much deserved. But the subtext was always there. The Obamas were, somehow, abnormally “normal.” That’s code language for the fact that they are successful in a system designed intentionally to prevent that success.

“African-American success and the unusual accomplishments of these African-Americans, this concept suggests, distinguish the exceptional Negroes from the normal underachieving African-Americans,” Jarvis Williams wrote in a 2016 blog post.

“Those who believe in the ‘exceptional Negro’ concept might often think that it’s normal and nothing ‘exceptional’ when folks from other races and ethnicities achieve success,” Williams continues, “but rather abnormal when members of non-African American races and ethnicities fail to achieve what an outer group thinks it should achieve (e.g. when someone from a certain ethnic group becomes a preacher, instead of a medical doctor when that particular group is well represented in the medical profession).”[i]

Phil, I know that this perspective on “exceptional slaves” is represented even in the Scriptures that undergird our faith tradition and community. You pointed to some of that language in your letter. In what has become known as the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives us a report of that great sermon Simon Peter gave on the day of Pentecost. In that sermon, Peter refers to the words of the prophet Joel as a prefiguring of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all believers.

The prophet declares that a sign of the kingdom come will be the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon “all flesh.” That outpouring will be most evident as it takes place in the lives of human beings, but the implication is that all of Creation will receive that gift. The Spirit will give the gift of prophesy to sons and daughters, and the gift of holy dreaming to young and old men alike.

“Even upon my male enslaved persons and upon my female enslaved persons, in those days I will pour out my Spirit,” Peter continues the quote. I focus on “even” in that sentence. It is regarded as even more remarkable that enslaved persons shall receive the gift of the Spirit.

It’s not remarkable from God’s perspective, I would hasten to add. But both the prophet and Peter recognize that this is not only unexpected but rather was regarded as simply impossible. Even though the outpouring of the Spirit is a completely “democratic” experience – that is, given to and accessible to all people, regardless of station in life – that fact must be noted in the prophecy and in the quote simply because it is so “abnormal.”

There are examples in your own culture of the “exceptional enslaved,” many of which are part of your awareness, I’m sure. The most notable, on the one hand, for his military success was Spartacus, of course. That’s a name that struck panic into the hearts of Roman slaveholders, I believe. Yet, in our time, it is a name that represents those who rebel in the name of freedom. But, in any event, he was exceptional for his leadership and military prowess.

There is also, Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher from your own era. It would amuse you to know that his words and work continue to inform and challenge people in our own era. Epictetus was, it would seem, regarded as an “exceptional slave,” and was freed from enslavement relatively early in his life. He appears to have maintained the lifestyle of an enslaved person for his whole life, however, living simply and alone for most of his adult life.

My point is that these “exceptions” were regarded as aberrations, as oddities that proved nothing about the general capacities of enslaved persons. Is that how you view Onesimus and his gifts and abilities in the life of the church? That he is a wonderful exception to an otherwise dismal rule?

Or perhaps, Onesimus represents that portion of the enslaved population which somehow “naturally” rises to the top and is able to perform in “normal” systems. That was the proposal late in the 19th century in this country that came to be known as the “talented tenth.” White northern elites sought to establish educational institutions that would seek out and educate the one in ten Black men who could manage the demands of “normal” (white supremacist) society.

For some time, influential leaders in the Black community supported and participated in this effort. Both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois endorsed this perspective and worked to bring it to reality. In fact, DuBois wrote both a famous essay and a formative book entitled The Talented Tenth to encourage this perspective and project.

For DuBois, this designation, however, did not describe some sort of limit on the abilities of Black people. Instead, he used it to describe the responsibility of the Talented Tenth to uplift the whole of the Black Community. In his essay, he wrote these words. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.”[ii]

Later, DuBois backed away from this perspective to a large degree, because of the ways in which the “exceptional negro” hypothesis was used to coopt the Black elites while at the same time continuing to assert that the vast majority of the Black population were capable of nothing more than being the “mudsills” of society (I’m sure you remember my reference to the “mudsill” speech in a previous letter).

Just as Epictetus was often used to make the case that enslavement wasn’t so terrible and that there was no reason to attack the institution and system, so this “exceptional negro” mythology is used to maintain the system of white supremacy in our culture. When that doesn’t happen – when too many Black people get a bit too exceptional – the historic response has been a violent backlash. I could go into a long description of how this worked in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a hundred years ago, but I think I’ve mentioned that horror in another letter.

I can’t help but think of the response to the Spartacus revolt and those six thousand crosses that lined the road between Puteoli and Rome. The message was quite clear. This is what happens when the enslaved class steps out of line. How did that work out in your congregation and in the congregations there in the Lycus valley?

It’s clear to me that you and Onesimus came to some sort of mutually agreeable accommodation and that Paul got his way, at least in the short run. But I fear that Onesimus was, in fact, an exceptional enslaved person, whether he wanted to be or not. As I read the words on enslavement in the letters we now call Colossians and Ephesians, it seems that the Roman enslavement system got the upper hand and drove back any attempts to make enslaved persons social equals as well as spiritual equals.

In our system, Black people can be “exceptional” as long as they don’t rock the boat too much. Or they may be able to rock the social boat if they have accumulated enough wealth and power to insulate themselves from the worst consequences of the inevitable White backlash.

We have an elite athlete, Colin Kaepernick, who is an example of this. As long as he was willing to just perform for White pleasure, he was well-rewarded. The minute he used his platform to call out white supremacy, he was deprived of those rewards. The backlash was so obvious. He should have been grateful for his rewarded exceptionalism. He should have just “shut up and played.”

I wonder if Onesimus experienced that same sort of treatment as he worked with Paul and became a noted leader in the churches in the Lycus valley over time.

As always, Phil, I hope you can see that my time has improved very little over yours when it comes to the challenges of Paul’s letter to you. And we have had the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight to try to figure things out. It’s not about intelligence, of course. For us, it’s about power – the power of white supremacy.

You are, Phil, what we in our time call “a good sport.” I look forward to your next letter.

Yours in Christ,


[i] https://thewitnessbcc.com/problems-exceptional-negro-concept/.

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Talented_Tenth.

Letter Sixteen — Philemon Fridays, Letters to Phil

Dear Phil,

I’m grateful that you have returned to thinking about how the immediate problems between you and Onesimus arose. I had wondered if he found and took with him his peculium. I didn’t know until I began studying that enslaved people, and especially those with household administrative responsibilities, often had a cache of their own cash from work, investments, repaid loans, gifts, etc.

I’m impressed that you maintained so carefully that fund and its accounting for the enslaved persons in your household. You noted that many of your colleague enslavers either claimed those funds as their own when the need arose, or they extracted a tariff on those funds as a sort of administrative fee. I sense that part of your response was that you felt dishonored and hurt that your honest dealing in the case of those funds was met with such a “disloyal response” on the part of Onesimus.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

There are a couple of things I’d like to interrogate with you if that’s all right. At times I have been puzzled by this sense of emotional distress expressed by enslavers (and after them landlords and bosses) when enslaved persons resisted, rebelled, disobeyed, and/or escaped. So often what I have heard in our own history is something like this. “I was a good and kind master. I treated my slaves well, or at least better than that terrible master down the road. How could my slave be so ungrateful, so unkind, so spiteful and selfish, as to leave me?”

I’ve taken some time to think about this and to examine myself. Then I realize how many times I have thought I ought to get a “pass” on bad behavior because I have been so kind, virtuous, generous, or whatever other positive attribute I can whip up for myself, to the person who is now acting quite rationally in response to my bad behavior. I know that when I put myself in that petulant frame of mind, I am patronizing and condescending to the other person – infantilizing the other and putting myself always in the position of the wise, benevolent, and all-knowing “parent.”

I’m not pretending to know what you were thinking or feeling when Onesimus escaped. I’m just trying to put myself in analogous roles and situations in order to understand better. When I respond in such ways, I know that I’m putting my needs, my perspectives, and my agendas at the top of the priority list. And I’m assuming that everyone else is just a bit player in the life drama where I am the screenwriter, producer, and lead actor.

I imagine that this sort of self-centering would be nearly irresistible in a system where the enslaver is the only “real” human being and the enslaved are regarded as less-than-human knock-offs. This has been the perspective toward Black people held by enslavers, landlords, politicians, law enforcement officials, judges, bosses, and every other white person in our society for four hundred years. We’ve made (I’ve made) little progress so far in dislodging this perspective from our brand of the human condition.

The argument, at least in our historical and contemporary setting, seems to go something like this. Why can’t you people (primarily Black people in our culture) just be satisfied with what you have. It’s better than it used to be. We’re making progress, aren’t we? After all, we elected a Black man president, not just once but twice. I know Black people who are doing quite well financially and socially. And I know poor White people who are struggling just as much as poor Black people. Why can’t you just be grateful for what you have? When will it ever be enough?

The answer to that, Phil, comes from a different but related domain. One of our Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was once asked how many justices she thought would be enough women sitting on the Court (yes, we have women in roles of public authority – that’s a discussion for another time). Her answer was when there would be nine women justices on the court, there would be enough. That means all the seats would be occupied by women.

Her response provoked shock and dismay in some quarters, and that was her intention. Her point was that no one (well, no men) found it troubling when all nine seats were occupied by men. So, why would it be troubling if all nine seats were occupied by women. She revealed the hypocrisy of gender in our system.

When will Black people be “satisfied”? When that question is no longer a question that makes sense. That question will no longer make sense when the racial bias and oppression baked into our society no longer determine every outcome for Black people.

Why couldn’t Onesimus just be “satisfied” with what he had? Well, I wouldn’t be satisfied, even if I had the best enslaver in the universe. I’m willing to stipulate that perhaps you, Phil, qualified for that title. But you and I know that enslaving another human being, made in the image of God, led to routine applications of violence, theft, degradation, sexual assault, and murder, as ways to manage the enslaved.

aLater in your letter you expressed a real moment of clarity. I’m so grateful for that. You noted that it wasn’t so much that Onesimus “stole” from you (although the peculium was, after all, his property). It wasn’t so much that he disobeyed you and dishonored your household (perspectives only an enslaver could hold if we’re being honest). His real “crime,” in your view was simply that he left.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m part of an Antiracism book study group. Right now, we’re reading a book about our country’s “Great Migration.” The book is called The Warmth of Other Suns, and the author is Isabel Wilkerson. Over the course of sixty years in the Twentieth century, some six million Black people left the American South and moved into northern states. Often, they had to do this in secret and under grave threat to their lives.

As I thought about writing you today, I reflected on some lines from Wilkerson’s book. They might be applicable here. She quotes one of our historians, John Dollard, who noted, “Just to go away is often one of the most aggressive things a person can do, especially when other options are limited or nonexistent.”[i] Leaving was an expression of resistance, rebellion, and rebirth for people who had known only abuse, oppression, and death.

The Great Migration, Wilkerson wrote, “was the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.”[ii] I think this was as great an “insult” to the enslaving class as the economic, cultural, and political damage that ensued. In a system that was built on White people ruling and Black people serving, the sheer exercise of self-determination was a revolutionary act. Those who left the South during the Great Migration “did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”[iii]

Worse yet, Onesimus left in order to go to Paul – someone whose opinion and esteem you valued greatly. It seems clear that Onesimus wanted Paul to intervene in the situation so that there could be some amicable resolution. In this sense, Onesimus committed no crime by leaving, as long as he came back. And yet, for you, the worst part of it all was that he took this big step without asking your leave.

Yet, he came back. He came back in order to stay within the bounds of Imperial fugitive slave laws, certainly. He also came back in order to be acknowledged, if you were willing, as a beloved brother in Christ and a partner with you in the Gospel mission. He left your household as a rebellious piece of property. He returned as, at least in Paul’s estimation, an equal in the Reign of God. That’s quite a kick in the pants, in both social and emotional terms.

And then, to add insult to injury (from your perspective as I imagine it), Paul made this an issue for the whole Christian assembly that gathers in your household. I suppose this could have been a private letter, between a couple of privileged, “honorable” Roman men. But Paul made it a church matter. So, it would be decided, not by you as the paterfamilias, but by the whole assembly – Gentile and Jew (I assume), enslaved and free, female and male.

I would have needed a fair bit of time to calm down and see straight after the initial storm of the first reading of the letter, probably in my chambers. My temptation to kill the messenger would have been pretty powerful. How about you? Then I would have realized that Paul had me by the theological and sociological throat. Not that he wished to do violence. Quite the opposite was true. But he left no way for you to wiggle out of that grasp, eh?

I hasten to add that I am not enjoying your discomfiture. I am doing my best to empathize with what you experienced and how you responded. I know how I react when I suspect even a whiff of justified recrimination for my ongoing racial biases.

I’d like to think I’m doing well, but I don’t want to risk finding out how untrue that is. When I do find that out, my gut tightens. I begin to sweat. I want to lash out and defend myself in the midst of a shame storm. All because someone has “dared” to point out the truth about me.

I hope you did better than I would have. The evidence indicates that you did. And for that I am glad and grateful.

Yours in Christ,


[i] Wilkerson, page 10.

[ii] Wilkerson, page 11.

[iii] Wilkerson, page 15.

Letter Fifteen — Philemon Fridays, Letters to Phil

Dear Phil,

It’s easy to forget, sometimes, just how different it was for you to receive your little letter from Paul than it would be for me to get a letter from one of my friends who lives elsewhere. That rarely happens in our time of almost instantaneous electronic communication, but the image still works.

A letter from my hypothetical friend (I do actually have real friends, by the way – not so many, but a few), would be written by my friend alone. It would be addressed solely to me, or at most to me and my spouse. The letter would be delivered impersonally by our postal service. I don’t mean that as a critique but rather as a description.

I would read the letter silently and by myself with little ritual or ceremony. If I had questions about the contents of the letter, I would have no one to ask directly. I could write or call my friend for further communication, but the letter itself would not come with an interpreter to provide clarification or additional comments.

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Our letter-writing as an institution is really a one-on-one transaction. We live in a highly individualistic culture, so the conventions around our letters are not surprising. I simply never considered any other way of doing things, until we began our correspondence about your correspondence. Of course, now I have questions.

It’s clear that the composition of Paul’s letter to you was a communal rather than an individual effort. A fellow in our time named Martin Luther Stirewalt really advanced our understanding of things that you would have taken for granted. He suggests, “Paul wrote from within a community. He surrounded himself with helpers: co-senders named in the salutation, scribes, greeters from the local congregation, commissioners and visitors from other churches. This group of people provided a kind of voluntary ad hoc secretariat.”[i]

Clearly, then, this “secretariat” involved Timothy as one of the co-senders. I assume it also involved Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, since they are mentioned in the concluding greetings of your letter. I imagine that Onesimus was also intimately involved in the composition of the letter.

I can’t help but wonder how the realization of that involvement impacted you in the moment and then later. I think I would have resented that fact, at least initially. I would have been irritated that Onesimus had an “unfair” advantage in helping to shape not only Paul’s evaluation of me but perhaps the very words – uncomfortable words at that – that would be addressed to me. Perhaps I’m projecting myself in ways that aren’t appropriate. I’d be glad to be corrected in that regard.

This is an immediate contrast to the kind of informal letter exchange I mentioned at the beginning of this note. Letters from Paul, even to individuals such as yourself, had the character of official administrative documents rather than friendship letters. Not that Paul and his colleagues were somehow unfriendly, hostile, or adversarial to you. Paul was certainly capable of such a letter. We need only read his epistle to the Galatian churches for that.

What I mean is that his letter to you was “official” – on the model of typical administrative letters in your time. After the letter’s composition, editing, vetting, revising, and finalizing by the “team” supporting Paul in his imprisonment, I imagine they followed the standard procedure for presenting such a letter to the recipient.

Stirewalt outlines the process. The letter was transported by hand from Paul to you by an appointed representative or representatives. That representative also had the status of a delegate or ambassador, empowered to speak on Paul’s behalf, expand on the content of the letter, and answer any questions you might have had. That delegate – Tychicus, if I am not mistaken – was also charged with bringing your reply to Paul, if there was to be one.

Next, the letter was delivered to you, by hand and personally. It’s interesting that we have the report of a similar kind of composition, transport, and delivery in Luke’s second volume which we call the Book of the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 15). In that account, Judas and Silas brought word to the Jerusalem council regarding the baptism of Gentiles.

They were also charged with bringing the letter of reply back to Paul and Barnabas in Antioch. I’m sure you’re aware of all this history, but I’m trying to get it straight for myself.

What is most striking to me is that the letter was handed over to the leaders of the Antioch community before it was read aloud to the community. Is that what happened in your case? If I have this right, Tychicus and associates brought the letter from Paul to you. They perhaps briefly explained the contents. You had the chance to read, and perhaps re-read several times, the letter before it was read out to the assembly of believers in your house.

Is that how it worked for you? Did you know the nature of Paul’s communication before it was shared with the assembly? It would seem so. And it would seem that you might have had the chance to interfere with or to manipulate the public reading of the letter to your advantage if you had chosen to do so.

We have a couple of Paul’s letters to the church at Thessaloniki. At the end of the first of those letters, Paul solemnly charges the recipients with the obligation to read the letter “to all the brothers.” That says to me that Paul had some concern that the recipients might choose to do otherwise. If Paul was concerned that it might happen, that means (of course) that it could happen.

I notice that Paul felt no need to place you under such a solemn obligation. That is, of course, to your credit.

So, you received and accepted the letter with a full awareness of its contents. You either called together the Christian assembly in your house immediately or waited until the regular meeting of the group that next Sunday evening. It was up to you (or was it?) to appoint the public reader of the letter. I’m under the impression that the reader of the letter was Tychicus. But some of our scholars are pretty sure that the reader would have been the regular, trained, and skilled reader in your local assembly.

I have some trouble crediting that assertion. On the one hand, I wonder if Paul and his colleagues would have entrusted that task to someone they hadn’t coached in advance on the oral delivery of the letter. I don’t think so.

On the other hand, I personally would have hesitated to be the local person to perform that letter in the assembly. I’m assuming it was a difficult experience for you. You could have ordered someone to do it, but I think the choice of Tychicus would have made this easier for all involved. If Tychicus or one of the other delegates had been coached in advance, then that reader was prepared to make the presentation without having to guess anything about Paul’s intentions, emphases, and goals.

So, the assembly gathered. The “official” reading was a public event. Just as the letter was composed by committee, so it was received in community. Of course, that’s acknowledged in the salutation of Paul’s letter. It is addressed not only to you but also to Lady Apphia, Master Archippus, and (most importantly, I think) to the assembly gathered in your household.

Were you the only local person who knew the contents of the letter in advance?

In any event, I imagine you all took your appointed places around the room. If the setting was typical, the benches or couches were set in a “three-quarters round” configuration. You, the good Lady, and the honored Master were against the far wall. Others were seated according to their status and relationships along the side walls. The reader and his colleagues were at the near wall, facing you.

The set-up insured that all of the participants could interact with one another. “That means that the listeners could all see one another,” Oestreich observes, “and that they mutually exerted influence and control over one another.”[ii] The point I had not considered fully until now is that the response to the letter was not yours alone to make. The letter was directed to the assembly, and Paul knew quite well that you would have to deal with his request in the midst of that assembly.

I imagine the meal was a bit tense as you waited for the reading. Tychicus and his colleagues were called to stand, and you gave them a formal welcome. Then you invited them to share Paul’s words. While Tychicus likely had the scroll in his left hand, I imagine he had practiced enough that he recited it from memory – complete with Paul’s preferred gestures, emphases, pauses, and expressions. In a real sense, the reader embodied Paul and made him present to the assembly.

“By being read publicly,” Oestreich suggests, “the letter was brought to the attention of the actual recipients, which for Paul’s letters are the members of a church or a group of churches. The spoken reading made the authority of the sender audible,” he concludes, “the reader embodied the presence of the sender.”[iii] It must have been a moment that could take one’s breath away.

Was there discussion immediately after the letter was presented? Perhaps Tychicus and his colleagues answered some questions, but I must wonder if the community perhaps took some time for deliberation and discernment. Of course, you had had some time to consider your response, I think. But, as I’ve come to see, it wasn’t only your decision, was it?

I’m grateful for your partnership in this conversation.

Yours in Christ,


[i] Quoted in Oestreich, Bernhard. Performance Criticism of the Pauline Letters (Biblical Performance Criticism Series Book 14) . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition, Location 525.

[ii] Ibid., Kindle Location 1525.

[iii] Ibid, Kindle Location 1541.

Letter Fourteen — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I don’t know why this didn’t dawn on me until now, but clearly, I’m not (as we say in our time) always the sharpest tool in the shed. You noted in passing that Tychicus read Paul’s letter to you and the Colossian assembly the first time you all heard it. I had assumed that perhaps you, as the “president” of the assembly would have read such important correspondence the first time. I also wondered if Paul took the risk of having Onesimus himself read the letter aloud to you, uncertain as he might have been of your response.

Of course, the normal method in the Pauline assemblies was to have an appointed, trained, and gifted reader perform the task for the assembly. That has been made clear to me through the work of a number of our contemporary scholars. Your mention of Tychicus confirms for me what these scholars have proposed over the last decade or so.

This makes perfect sense in a number of ways, I now see. The letter was addressed primarily (although not exclusively) to you, and it certainly would have been painfully awkward, I imagine, for you to have to read that letter for the most part to yourself. It was intended to advocate for and defend Onesimus. It would be nearly as awkward for him to plead his own case in the words of the letter – some of which might have provoked an aggressive response from you. In hindsight, the use of a lector was the only reasonable approach.

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Having Tychicus read the letter, I’m sure, provided Paul with the opportunity to coach Tychicus on the finer points of inflection, gesture, emphasis, and pauses in the reading. “If the contents of the letter were to bring about reconciliation,” Adam White notes in a recent article, “then the letter would need to persuade Philemon not only in its content, but also in its performance.”[i]

The thing is, Phil, our weekly Sunday morning worship services are probably pretty tame affairs when compared with the drama of your house church assemblies. I can imagine your household and other Jesus followers gathered in the dining area of your home on a Sunday evening. The scene was lit by torches and a hearth. A meal was set for all. There must have been an air of expectation that night – a letter from Paul, imprisoned in Ephesus (or was it Rome?), and the return of the escapee, Onesimus.

Phil, did you know the contents of the letter before it was read aloud in front of the whole assembly? Had you seen or talked with Onesimus before that worship service in your house? What kinds of diplomatic maneuvers did Tychicus execute in order to keep you from executing Onesimus on sight? If we had drama like that in our services, we probably wouldn’t have to beg people to attend regularly.

So, you sat at the head of the table and the room, in the place of honor. Were you flanked by Lady Apphia and Master Archippus, also addressed in the salutation of the letter? I imagine so. Tychicus probably stood facing you as he read. I wonder if Onesimus stood behind him as the one on whose behalf the letter was presented. The rest of the assembly were seated or standing around the space in readiness for the letter and the meal. That circle of witnesses included, I imagine, those enslaved in your household and perhaps those enslaved persons from other households as well.

“The performance itself was an event that involved several people: the lector presenting the text and the audience listening; all these present in the room,” writes Adam White, “were collectively involved in generating the meaning of the text that had reached them.”[ii] The tension in the space must have been so thick you could cut it with a knife.

I imagine you welcomed the assembly, as you had several times before. Then I suspect you invited Tychicus to read. Nothing else was going to happen until that letter was out in the open. Tychicus stood up in the middle of the space, in the place representing Jesus, and likely in the very space that Paul had occupied if and when he had come to the assembly in your home to preach and teach. Tychicus was required to “imitate” Paul in a quite literal fashion.

Our scholars propose that this reading was not a flat recitation of words on scroll. That was not the practice of lectors in your time and culture, as far as we can tell. Tychicus needed to convey the same gestures, emotions, attitudes, and emphases that Paul would have presented if he himself were present. The letter was not read, it was performed. “The task of the lector was to represent the voice and persona of the author,” Adam White suggests, “he was expected to re-enact and bring to life the original performance of the text through appropriate facial expressions, gesticulations, and vocal inflections. It was his task,” White continues, “to read the letter in the way Paul wanted it to be read.”[iii]

I imagine that this is what happened in your home that evening. Even though the letter was addressed to you, it was performed for the whole assembly. The responses, and perhaps the final decision, were not yours alone. I imagine, Phil, that all eyes were trained on you during the performance of the letter. And I also imagine that you felt a great deal of pressure from the assembly to render an appropriate judgment in the case.

For, it would seem, you were the “judge” in this situation. White uses that imagery to describe your position and role. I wonder if you find that to be an accurate description of how it was for you. White explores the conventions of rhetoric of the time for clues in this regard. It was up to the reader to persuade the judge toward a favorable decision.

The reader needed also to be sensitive to the emotions and responses of the assembly, since that was often a factor in the decision as well. “In other words,” White argues, “the content of the letter, as well as the performance of the lector need to pull all the stops. The letter needs to draw on all the rhetorical resources available and these need to be performed well to move Philemon,” he continues, “to the audacious decision of welcoming Onesimus back.”[iv]

White analyzes the letter to you as a performance piece with several intentional elements. First, Paul described your loving and generous character in the past. That already began to set you up for loving and generous actions in the future. Paul noted that he often remembered your love for all the saints and your faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. Paul praised your partnership in the gospel and then suggested that all these good characteristics would lead to a productive decision in the case at hand.

Paul lifted up your gifts for refreshing the hearts of the saints. Many in the assembly, perhaps, had benefitted from your gifts. Paul portrayed you as a brother, a partner, an honored giver of care, and one who lived out the love and compassion of Jesus. “Paul brings to the attention of those assembled in the room the very characteristics that he will shortly call on in dealing with the case,” White observes, “It would be impossible at this point for the audience to see Philemon in any other light,” he concludes, “moreover, the gathering would now be expecting him to act in a way that preserves this reputation.”[v]

When we read the letter in our own cultural setting (and in English), the letter sounds like a fawning attempt to butter you up with flattery and manipulate you into the behavior Paul wants from you. But that’s importing our cultural assumptions into a very different setting. Reminding you of your loving and honorable character was precisely the expected path that this letter should take. Paul was not, if I am correct, manipulating you. Paul was simply asking you to be who you truly are in Christ. I wonder if I have that right?

Paul was not at all above tugging at the heart strings of all the listeners. He described himself as an old man, suffering in prison, for the sake of the gospel. And he makes sure that everyone remembers who is speaking – “This is me, Paul!” Just when that emotional appeal was ringing through the room, the reader returned to and for the first time named Onesimus.

Perhaps Onesimus stepped out of the shadows at this point in order to emphasize what was happening in the letter. I wonder if that was part of the performance, a set piece not written down on the scroll. I could go on for a while regarding Paul’s description of Onesimus. Suffice it to say that Onesimus was presented as a brother in Christ, a humble member of the body seeking reconciliation, and a necessary part of the ministry of Paul in prison.

Then comes the “ask.” By the end of the letter, it would seem that you were left with no alternative but to receive Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ and “even more than a brother.” Did you do so joyfully, tearfully, with the Eucharist waiting in the background? I wonder. I’d be interested in your recollections of the night.

Phil, thanks as always for taking the time to instruct me and to correct my foolish assumptions. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours in Christ,


[i] https://journals.co.za/doi/abs/10.25159/2309-5792/3260.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., p. 6.

[v] Ibid., p. 7