The brief Letter to Philemon, written by St. Paul from his Roman prison cell, will be proclaimed as the second reading at Mass this coming Sunday. The letter is certainly the most personal writing left from St. Paul not only because it reveals a warm, affectionate relationship with a Christian convert who had greatly assisted the Apostle in his ministry, but also because of the several Christian brothers and sisters listed by name and status revealing the close links that bound together the early Christian community throughout the Mediterrean world. At the start, St. Paul cites, “…Timothy our brother…Philemon, our beloved and our co-worker…Apphia our sister…Archippus our fellow soldier.” At the conclusion the Apostle will mention, “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner …as well as Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my co-workers.” A deep affection and fond remembrance clearly bound together the early and extensive Christian world.
The short missive to Philemon involves a slave named Onesimus — the name means “useful” or “beneficial,” — who had run off from his master, possibly after some shady dealings. (St. Paul mentions that he himself would be good for any debt.) Onesimus was then converted by St. Paul. St. Paul possibly has a double motivation in sending Onesimus back to his Christian master, Philemon.
Although St. Paul’s respect for the ancient institution of slavery indeed sounds repugnant to modern ears — and rightly so — the Apostle no doubt viewed the return of the slave to the master as a matter of justice. Slavery was the prevailing and accepted order in ancient times and the infant Christian Church was in no position to alter this fundamental aspect of Roman society. The infant Church also expected the imminent return of Jesus Christ so personal conversions were a more pressing concern than even the gravest of social justice issues. But St. Paul might have more seriously viewed the return of Onesimus to Philemon as an opportunity for evangelization.
Onesimus had proven himself a fervent Christian and a worthy assistant during his sojourn with St. Paul at Rome. The Apostle viewed the slave’s zeal as a valuable instrument in furthering the work of the Church at the slave’s home community at Colossae in Greece. St. Paul goes out of his way to stress that he expects the Philemon as master to accept Onesimus back not so much as his slave but as a fellow brother in Christ who could work along with Philemon for the good of the Gospel.
Here, in a subtle manner, St. Paul indicates that Onesimus has a dignity as a Christian that indeed outweighs his status as a slave. Since both Philemon and Onesimus are equally brothers “beloved…in the Lord,” their unity in Christ should prevail over any social disparity. Such human equality was a revolutionary notion in the stratified culture of ancient Rome. That master and slave should work together to promote the Gospel message reveals the true nature of an authentic Christian community: baptism offsets rank; conversion negates status.
St. Paul would write more famously concerning Christian equality in his epistle to the Ephesians: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The Apostle would make this same notation in his letter to the Galatians: “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Of course Jesus himself would never be outdone in his plea and prayer for Church unity: “And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.” The intimacy that exists between the Father and the Son is the foundation for the closeness that should pervade relationships within the Christian community.
Certainly there are many ministries, many charisms, many offices with the Christian community as St. Paul acknowledges to the Corinthians: “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” Christians must discern their own and their neighbor’s spiritual gifts and then exercise them and honor them for the good of all.