What a bummer. I ended up going to two services today, and in neither case did the preacher take advantage of the rare lectionary opportunity to preach on a whole book of the Bible in one sermon.
Well, okay, virtually a whole book. A few verses get left off at the end. But still.
OK, so the book in question is Philemon, one of the one-chapter wonders of the New Testament. But still.
Apparently for some it is a troublesome passage. Apparently for some Paul is not explicit enough. Apparently for some the only appropriate thing for Paul to do was to come out with trumpets blaring, demanding of Philemon in ALL CAPS that Philemon MUST free his slave Onesimus or Paul personally would guarantee Philemon's eternity in some bad place.
Yes, I suppose Paul could have done that. In the Roman Empire of his time that was a good way to get executed. But, hey, Paul was already in prison at that point, what's a mere execution?
Thing is, short of such a direct order, Paul does a pretty fascinating job of backing Philemon into a corner. There are a few things you need to remember about this letter, things that often don't seem to be noticed by the more fretful or condemnatory commentators out there.
One: the letter is not just addressed to Philemon. Besides the title character, Paul also addresses the letter to "Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house" (2). As a result, this letter, like the other letters of Paul with place names attached (Galatians, Philippians, etc.), this letter would have been read not just by Philemon, but to that entire church meeting in his house. Paul isn't just asking this thing of Philemon, he's asking in front of everybody. The whole congregation is going to be watching to see how Philemon responds to this. (Perhaps the whole congregation, or those who hold slaves, might also be challenged about how they treat their slaves too. Who knows?)
Two: Paul isn't just asking Philemon to set Onesimus free or to just be nicer to him. He wants (hint, hint) Philemon to release Onesimus to return to Paul. Note verses 13 and 14: "I wanted to keep him with me...but I preferred to do nothing without your consent." Hint, hint. Now Paul does keep the door open for Onesimus to stay with Philemon, "no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother" (16). But really, the way Paul frames his letter, those are really the only two options he is imagining.
Three: Paul isn't above reminding Philemon who's the apostle and who's the convert. "I say nothing about your owing me even your own self" (19b) ... except, well, you just did, Paul. Even though Philemon owes Paul, in Paul's view, Paul is willing to guarantee anything that Onesimus may have filched from his master (even going so far as to take the pen from his secretary and write that part himself -- "I will repay it" (19a). Every excuse is being pulled out from under Philemon -- in front of the whole congregation, remember.
Intermingled with appropriate levels of flattery at beginning and end, thus Paul puts Philemon on the spot. "If you're the man I think you are, you'll do this...for me." Really, it's a pretty slick bit of maneuvering Paul puts on Philemon. If followed through, it blows up the whole system; how do you enslave your brother or sister in Christ?
Well, obviously, some people have managed to do so. I'm going to guess that not a whole lot of antebellum Southern preachers, among others, ever preached from Philemon that often. People will rationalize, any way they can, when they don't want to follow. Is it the letter's fault?
C'mon, preachers, you have three years. Get your Philemon sermons ready.