Many churches throughout the world use a Bible reading schedule called a "lectionary." It's just a fancy word meaning "selected readings." Posts like this reflect on the readings for an upcoming Sunday or other Church holiday, as found in the three-year lectionary.
Our Epistle reading for this week touches on an issue which has created trouble for Christians ever since the time of Christ. Slavery has been a persistent problem in the world, and remains so to this day. Though Christians have made some progress in changing opinions, especially in the 19th century, imprisonment and sale of humans has still been practiced in many circles.
Philemon was a slave holder known to the apostle Paul. Apparently he was indebted to Paul in some way (v. 19), possibly because Paul had brought him the Gospel. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had become a Christian, apparently when away from Philemon, possibly as a runaway (v. 10). It was right that Onesimus should submit himself to Philemon. It was also right that Philemon should receive a slave back, but as a Christian brother (v. 16). It would certainly be a good thing if Philemon would set Onesimus free, especially if he made sure Onesimus would have a job.
What common values do we find in Paul and presumably Philemon? First, that Onesimus validly owed Philemon. He should not have fled. To take Onesimus away would deprive Philemon of services he had legally paid for. Second, that a Christian master treats a Christian in his service in a humane and kind way, as a brother or sister in Christ. Third, that the relationship in Christ is more important than any other part of the person’s status.
While Christians fight against slavery, they also recognize that the purchase of goods or services, and sometimes of people, is an agreement which can only be broken with caution. Christians who have held slaves in history have been very likely to treat the slaves well and eventually to release them, often with an offer of ongoing employment. It is a hard adjustment to make. However, historically, it is the Christian community which has made an effort to bring about freedom and justice. Paul’s letter to Philemon is an example of this.
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