[The sermon was preached as part of the Lenten series “The Doctrine of the Incarceration.”]
How many of you upon hearing Philemon this morning wondered, “What in the world is going on, why is this in the Bible, and what it’s supposed to mean for us?” One of my favorite things in teaching is to encourage students to linger for a while in the bewilderment rather than trying to move directly to the “one right interpretation” (so if you’re hoping that I’ll tell you what this letter really means, it’s not going to happen, so let’s get that disappointment out of the way). Especially with texts held as sacred, we can both expect and desire a coherent message that is immediately and clearly meaningful for our lives. But I would contend that meaning is made, that what is meaningful is not always self-evident but becomes meaningful in the process of trying to figure things out. After all, our lives are continually unfolding processes of working to figure things out, figuring out how to makes sense of and live in the world around us.
And that’s where we might start with Philemon: in this text, Paul and Timothy write to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the assembly that gathers in their house as a matter of working out the dynamics of what it means to live in Christ. We might say that the prevailing question centers on what difference faith in Christ makes for living together. How are relationships and practices informed by the gospel? But here’s where I want to be careful. It is far too easy and far too common to jump immediately to the conclusion that Paul presents a glorious vision of equality and oneness in Christ. Maybe. Maybe that’s the idea in theory. But we might want to ask further about how that plays out in practice.
So what is actually happening in this letter? What’s at stake “in practice”? Honestly, it’s not entirely clear. We know that Paul and Timothy send a letter to a group of people who meet together in a house, presumably for some kind of worship. We know that some man named Onesimos has been with Paul during a time of separation from Philemon and that some kind of relationship of affection and usefulness has developed between Paul and Onesimos during that time. But who is this Onesimos? What’s he doing with Paul? And why does Philemon care?
Onesimos is apparently a slave since Paul abjures Philemon to welcome Onesimos back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave” (v16, CEB). Onēsimos in Greek means “useful.” Calling someone by describing her or his functionality was a common practice for naming slaves. Paul even makes a pun of the name, saying that Onesimos “was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us” (v11). We’ll come back to this issue of how Paul and Philemon relate to Onesimos, but we should keep in mind the fundamental idea that Onesimos’s very name signifies that he is someone to be used, that he is valuable not on his own terms but as far as he is beneficial to another.
Beyond Onesimos’s enslavement, we do not know much else about him. A commonly held idea is that Onesimos is a runaway slave, that he and Paul somehow meet and he becomes useful in some way to Paul, and that Paul is appealing to Philemon in this letter to show mercy to his slave. This makes sense following the text, but it isn’t necessarily the case. It could be just as likely that Philemon sent Onesimos to Paul, perhaps to care for Paul while he was imprisoned or with a letter, and that Paul is now requesting that Onesimos be granted more time with Paul or at least that he be welcomed home graciously after this period of separation, with any losses being charged to Paul. Or maybe something else is going on. Just as we would not know all of the details of a situation if we were to pull out and read one part of email correspondence between two parties who are strangers to us, we can’t answer all of the questions this single letter might raise as we read it nearly two thousand years after its writing.
So why did early Christians like this text enough to include it in the New Testament? After all, this letter seems to be addressing a private matter. The reason is probably similar to what we might hope to get out of the letter today: a message that we are all family in Christ. Moreover, this letter appeals to a sense of equality, especially if we read it as Paul’s argument that Philemon free Onesimos from enslavement, as many people have indeed interpreted. I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble here, but I do think it’s worthwhile to be a bit cynical in this case. It’s possible that the implicit argument of the letter is that Onesimos should be freed, but this certainly isn’t explicit. And the fact that Paul says that “now [Onesimos] is useful to us both” might suggest that Onesimos remains valuable as a slave, as someone who can be used.
But we might make one more defense of Paul’s good intensions, just to be fair. His plea to Philemon is rather poignant. He asks that Onesimos be taken back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother” (v16). Even though Paul does not say that Onesimos should be set free, Paul reinterprets Onesimos’s relationship to Philemon not in terms of master and slave but as siblings. Surely this alters the meaning of Onesimos’s enslavement! Surely this is something better, a vision of equality and kinship in Christ!
I do hate to be a downer, but I’m not sure I’m impressed. When I turn to the Greek text, I’m perplexed and maybe even troubled. What gets translated as “more than a slave” is, in Greek, ὑπὲρ δοῦλον— ὑπὲρ, a preposition meaning over, beyond, exceeding (from which we get the prefix hyper), plus δοῦλον, a word for slave. What if we read this expression as saying that Onesimos should be viewed “no longer as a slave but as a hyperslave,” or, in contemporary parlance borrowing from German, “as an uberslave”? The notion that Onesimos is to be seen as a brother suggests that ὑπὲρ δοῦλον indeed means something like “more than” or “better than a slave.” But the idea of being something more might just as easily be read as adding more meaning onto enslavement, not actually stripping enslavement of its meaning altogether. That is, Onesimos is an uberslave in that he’s useful in even more ways. The spiritualized term for it might be “brother,” but the legal status doesn’t change. Instead, it’s slavery plus something extra. After all, Onesimos is now apparently even more useful, as Paul writes earlier in the letter.
Yet, at the end of the day, I don’t think I actually care what Paul himself “really meant.” If we can only argue against slavery by reading Paul as a hero who champions the freeing of this one slave, then we’ve probably already missed the point of the good news of Christ. Instead, I’d like to turn—perhaps ironically for a sermon series on the doctrine of the incarceration—away from Paul, who is writing from prison, to Onesimos. As we consider incarceration, it is actually perhaps more appropriate to think not about the prisoner Paul but about the slave Onesimos since the prison industrial complex has been called by some a modern form of slavery. That is, incredibly high rates of imprisonment, particularly of people of color—rates which have skyrocketed even as crime rates have remained relatively steady, with periods of notable decline, over the last half-century—demonstrate a singling out of some bodies as useful only insofar as they can be controlled. Data show rather clearly that people of color, especially black men, are imprisoned far more frequently for infractions for which white persons might instead be fined or let off altogether. Then there is the profit that is made from imprisonment, both in building prisons and through the labors of prisoners. It is a sad and sick truth that Paul’s words might well describe common attitudes today toward those who are imprisoned: “before they were useless to society, but now—in prison, under our control—they can be made useful to us all.” Just as some bodies have been viewed throughout history as enslaveable, some bodies now are seen and treated as particularly imprisonable.
As Rev. Will has already made clear in recent weeks, the interest here is not in making moral judgments about prisoners. Critiquing the prison industrial complex doesn’t mean saying that there can be no consequences for actions, especially those that cause harm to others. The problem is that some bodies—particularly black, brown, and impoverished bodies—are treated already and always as requiring control. This is the logic that has undergirded slavery from antiquity to modernity, and it continues to be played out in our prison systems. It is this systemic problem—one that does social, spiritual, and physical violence—that demands critique. It is not enough for us simply to say that all people are equal in the eyes of God, that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ. To conceive of the Divine becoming flesh—the doctrine of the incarnation—is also to conceive of divinity in and beyond enslavement and imprisonment—the doctrine of the incarceration, which should challenge, inform, and inspire where and how we see the gospel in the world.
Unfortunately, we don’t know what the gospel meant personally to Onesimos. And we don’t know what it would have meant to him if Philemon were to consider him “as a brother.” But we do know that slaves under the Roman Empire—the world of Onesimos and Paul—were legally regarded as property, with no legal standing of their own. As such, there was no legal recognition of relationships among slaves. Instead, families could be and were often torn apart. And yet, that does not mean that slaves’ own lives and relationships were wholly defined by what others said about them. The law might not have recognized their family ties, but slaves used the same terms for one another as freepersons did, calling each other wife and husband, parent and child, sister and brother. We could praise Paul for calling Onesimos a brother, but we’re not even sure what difference that would have made, if any. What if we focused instead upon the ways that Onesimos and other slaves could call each other family and regard one another with care in a world where they were regarded as property? While we should keep in mind slaves’ lack of control over their own lives, funerary inscriptions like the one below provide evidence for one way enslaved persons literally carved out their relationships in the world, demonstrating family not just as some metaphorical or spiritualized notion but as very much tangible.
My point is not to make slavery somehow seem a little bit better, nor is it to glorify the endurance of slaves in their suffering. Sometimes we can make ourselves feel better by saying, “Look at those people who have it worse and who still have the courage to love and live!” Such a sentiment, of which I, too, have been guilty at times, does nothing to alleviate the root causes of suffering and oppression and is moreover another form of exploitation in that we make the lives of others useful for our own emotional and spiritual gain. Instead, I’m suggesting that we not assume that what we mean by terms like sister or brother in Christ means or does the same thing for everyone. Conversely, we ought not deny that people can make meaning of their own lives, often as a matter of survival, as a matter of negotiating the circumstances of day-to-day living. This is what it means for the gospel to become flesh, for it to become present even in enslavement and imprisonment. The good news of Christ is that bodies and relationships that are abused and abusive, controlled and controlling are not marked only by forces of social and political power but also by the care and grace extended to one another.
When we are in positions of power and privilege—which can shift and change according to the circumstances of our own lives—our response to the gospel is not just to call others our kindred in Christ, nor is it simply to recognize the humanity of those who suffer injustice; rather, we respond to the gospel when we work to ensure that the good news is not just a matter of words but of doing and becoming. How can we care for one another as Christ cares for the enslaved, the imprisoned, and all those who suffer ill and harm? How can we care for one another as those who have been socially disregarded regard themselves and others still as fully human, as worthy always of love and mercy? How can we be moved to a place where what it means to care for all God’s creation is not determined by whom and what we consider worthy—by whom we might be willing to call “more than a slave” or “more than a prisoner,” as if we have right to judge some (but only some!) as good enough, as better than their status—but where value is already determined by God’s presence in and among all flesh—slave and free, imprisoned and free?
In the end, I come back to the idea with which I began: in the Bible and in our own lives, meaning is made in the process of working things out. The answers are not found in one place and one place alone. We will not be saved by taking Paul as the great exemplar of engendering equality. Nor does it serve anyone well if we look to those who are marginalized and oppressed simply for what they can teach us about justice and the meaning of endurance in suffering. Instead, we might dwell for a while in the tensions and uncertainties, asking critical questions and allowing ourselves to be challenged by what we see, as well as by recognizing what might be hidden from our view or obscured as a matter of maintaining the status quo.
Paul may or may not have advocated for Onesimos’s freedom. But Paul doesn’t have to have the final word. When we read with Onesimos in mind—following the doctrine of the incarceration to prioritize attention to God’s presence among the marginalized, when we ask about the difference that the gospel makes in a world of entrenched hierarchies, we might start to reimagine a world in which people are not exploited for the benefits they can bring but in which the gospel itself is what is useful insofar as it brings hope, mercy, and healing to broken relationships and abused bodies. May we likewise become useful in bearing the good news by giving up the conceit that we ought to determine who and what are worthy of care. Rather, may we start with the recognition that God is already present in and among us all, letting this truth transform how we treat one another and how we structure our world according to the gospel of justice through grace and mercy.