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Philemon's Problem

What was Philemon’s problem? Healey digs into the story connected to this weekend's second reading. It's one without a clear ending, and it involves some serious dilemmas, even of life and death.

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Reading: Wisdom 9:13-18

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 90:3-6, 12-17

Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon 1:9-10, 12-17

Gospel: According to St. Luke 14:25-33

In this weekend’s second reading St. Paul is writing to and about two people who are minor players in the ranks of biblical characters, yet the importance of their story cannot be overstated.

Philemon, the person to whom the letter was written, and Onesimus, the person about whom it was written, are two men whom I have known well since college.  The course was “Theology of Grace” and the text was Philemon’s Problem.  What was Philemon’s problem? Well, his problem was more of a ‘who’ than a ‘what,’ and that ‘who’ was an old man named Paul.

It seems that St. Paul met a runaway slave named Onesimus and converted him to Christ.  St. Paul writes to Philemon, a man whom he also baptized, to ask him to take in Onesimus and “welcome him as you would me.”  This is a tough thing to ask because harboring a runaway slave makes you an accomplice to his crime.  This request is made more difficult because the slave owner that Onesimus ran away from was Philemon.

St. Paul is asking Philemon to take back a runaway slave not as a repentant sinner who will now obey his master, but as a brother in Christ, no longer a slave, as if that brother were Paul himself.  Paul’s choice of words places Philemon in a terrible bind:

“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.  I should have liked to retain him for myself…but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary…So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.”

When Jesus said that we need to be as innocent as doves and yet as cunning as serpents I assume he had St. Paul in mind.

Paul is asking Philemon – in the most polite way possible – to slit his own economic throat.  If Onesimus returns as a brother and not as a slave how will the other slaves react?  Certainly they will seek the waters of baptism that will free them not only from sin but from the binding chains of physical slavery.  And once the slaves of other Christian masters hear about this then there will be no end to the line of slaves waiting for baptism.

Indeed, Philemon has a problem: obey the man who brought him to Christ and risk financial and social ruin, or disobey him and then pray that the old man dies in jail so he can never make a surprise visit.

But more importantly, Onesimus has a problem.  He is being told by Paul to go back to his legal master in the hope that Philemon will make the right choice.  The outcome of this story might make Philemon poor and outcast, but it might also make Onesimus dead – it seems that Onesimus has a bit more to lose than Philemon.

As Fr. Burtchaell, the professor in “Theology of Grace” and the author of Philemon’s Problem, told us, we do not know the outcome of this encounter.  But there is reason to hope that all went well: a man named Onesimus was the second bishop of Ephesus, and the list of early Christian martyrs includes both the names of Onesimus and Philemon.

And since that’s all we have to go on then we should turn to the wisdom of another Paul, my Theology Department colleague Paul Prokop, whose response in such situations is: “If it ain’t true, it ought to be.”  And so it should.

A.M.D.G.

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