Chris' Original Blogbeque

A fresh, vinegar-based examination of life

SJ in the NT: Philemon

Posted by Chris on April 23, 2007


First things first: If you are unfamiliar with Philemon and Onesimus, read the book of Philemon! It’s only 1 chapter, 25 verses! To save space I will only quote it sparingly.

Onesimus, formerly a slave, the lowest rung of society, was poor, probably owned nothing. Paul writes that to Philemon, Onesimus was once useless, but now he is useful both to you and to me. In fact, the name Onesimus in Greek means “profitable or useful.” Paul suspects that there was a divine purpose in Philemon somehow losing his servant. To quote him directly from verses 15-16: “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”

God wants the rich and poor to be brothers and sisters, useful to one another! So opposite to what we see in the world, even today, and throughout our history! There is much to be learned from this short book of the Bible. As for the relationship between the rich and the poor, I will only list the following Proverbs:
“Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all.” Prov 22:2
“The poor man and the oppressor have this in common: The LORD gives sight to the eyes of both.” Prov 29:13

One could also use this passage to combat the idea that slavery is tolerated by God, a viewpoint popular among Christians as little as 150 years ago. Additionally, a book could be written based on what this book says about spiritual submission to God or the example of apostolic leadership of Paul over the believers in his time. But I would like to focus on forgiveness, condescension, and reconciliation.

Forgiveness is obviously important in many aspects of the human experience besides social justice. Just as it is indispensable in a marriage, or in our condition before God, it is a necessary precursor to reconciliation between the rich and poor of this world. It is a two-way street and it requires condescension by all, to admit past wrongs and move ahead humbly. Without this realization, there will not only be division between the First World and Third World, but sadly a schism within The Church. In how many churches can you find a millionaire standing next to someone below the poverty line? This is not only due to geography, people. There is a barrier that was constructed long ago, and it has been fortified by events like slavery.

We all build up walls between “us” and “them.” Who is your “us” and who is your “them”? While not rich or poor, you can certainly identify some other categories. Thus, while we must all strive to promote unity with all other believers, we also have a role in this historic divide between rich and poor. Ed Silvoso points out that Paul was asking for “something extraordinary from both Philemon and Onesimus… that Philemon receive Onesimus as a brother… [and for] Onesimus to return to the master from whom he had fled… Paul, the reconciler, stood in the gap, embraced both men and pleaded for them to be reconciled with each other.” Similarly, we can serve as reconcilers. What does this mean? Many things, and I will cop out by letting you find those on your own.


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