Paul was genuine in his request. He hoped Philemon would do what was right and good because his heart had been moved. It would be countercultural, it would require great humility, but Paul was counting on Philemon’s love and faith to Jesus and to the Body of Christ.
Slave or Brother?
There are fascinating possibilities for Onesimus’ story, based upon what remain only clues for us today.
- As early as the third century, John Chrysostom posed Onesimus as a runaway slave after having stolen from Philemon. This is the traditional view and most broadly held view. After meeting with Paul, he became converted and was sent back to the slaveholder, Philemon, to be forgiven and reinstated in the household.
- A recent commentator holds Onesimus was a slave, but that Archippus was his captor.
- S.B.C. Winter posits Onesimus as a slave who left on good terms to give aid to Paul while Paul was in prison, but took something of the slaveholder Philemon’s property. Once Onesimus’ thievery was found out, rupture was created, and it would be unsafe for Onesimus to return. Paul’s letter to Philemon now asked for the born again slave to be manumitted as a brother in Christ.
- F.F. Bruce suggested Onesimus had been mistreated and fled seeking Paul for asylum. Roman law of that time permitted a friend of the slaveholder to provide both asylum from maltreatment and mediation between the enslaved person and their captor.
- J.D.G. Dunn builds on this theory of seeking asylum, theorizing Onesimus stole money or jewelry, or something else that could easily be converted into cash to fund his journey to Paul. In this scenario, Onesimus would have sensed freedom might be made available to him through Paul. He had heard the prayers and worship of those meeting in Philemon’s household, he would have noted the change in Philemon, and he knew Paul was the evangelist who had come promising freedom to all who came to Christ.
- A.D. Callahan presents the startling view that Onesimus was Philemon’s blood brother, who went to Paul seeking mediation on a dispute over property or belongings, or bad debt. Once there, he received the gospel message and was born anew from above by the power of the Spirit. Now, he was returning to his brother, willing to accept whatever his brother decided between them in their dispute.
The bondage, in this case, would pertain to the inequality in their relationship—Onesimus as the dissolute brother, or the younger and foolish brother, the brother who had racked up debt, was in deep arrears, had become financially indebted to the brother who had been covering his outstanding obligations. Think gambling, or bad loans, or collapsed ventures.
What Paul wrote could support any of these story lines.
The underlying girders of the story are a seemingly irreparable rupture between men of very unequal status, the one clearly the wronged, the other clearly the perpetrator. And the one wronged has justice on his side.
Nature of Forgiveness, Jesus Style
Jesus had been talking about how to reconcile, and pray about reconciling, apparently making Peter itchy and uncomfortable. There was probably someone in that room who had offended him during the argument about who was better and who should really be first in the kingdom of heaven.
All that talk about having to go to the person and reconcile with them must have made him wonder how many times he was going to have to put up with their behavior towards him. He knew the Pharisees said you only had to forgive somebody three times. Biblical proof was taken from the first chapters of Amos where God condemns various nations based on three transgressions and four.
The idea was that it would be unseemly to be more gracious than God, so forgiveness was limited to three times! Peter must have thought he was being pretty generous with his question, a real risk of faith to go beyond the Pharisees, beyond even Almighty God.
How many times do have to forgive somebody who hurts me? he said to Jesus. Is it seven? Just asking for a friend.
I picture Jesus pausing and turning to Peter, looking at him in his quiet, deep way. Jesus may have let the minutes tick by as Peter squirmed with his question.
Finally, I see Jesus placing a heavy hand on Peter’s shoulder and smiling gravely, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.”
By this point, I picture the other disciples now fully alert, and leaning in. Jesus looks at them all, his face serious.
Okay, sit down, he says to them, Let me tell you a story.
“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.
“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’
“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.
“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”Jesus to his disciples, Matthew 18:21-35 (The Message)
Welcome Him As You Would Me
Truly then, since you have me [as] a companion and partner, take hold of him as me. And since this one wronged you, what he owes, put this on my account. I, Paul, wrote this [with] my own hand: I will pay in full, in order that I would not be saying to you that indeed yourself to me are owing besides.Philemon 1:17-19 (my translation)
Now listen, before you start grumbling about the woodenness of this translation, what I want you to see is what I finally—after having read this letter many, many times, studied it, went through commentary after commentary, for a good forty years—finally saw tonight.
It is in that last line, which has been—I am convinced—mostly wrongly translated, making Paul sound kind of passively aggressively manipulative.
Let me rephrase it a tad, now that you have read my (trying to be as faithful as I can to the text) attempt at translation.
- Since you and I are companions and partners in close friendship, and fellowship in the Lord, and as partners in the gospel, then take Onesimus in as if he were me, since I send him to you as one of my spiritual sons and one I love as my own heart.
- I know he wronged you, I know he owes you, and you and I both know he has absolutely nothing to pay you back with. So, transfer his debt to my account. You know I have money, and I am good for it. I have always, always paid my own way.
- And look, the last thing I want to do is tell you, you owe me. I do not do that, I do not keep accounts like that, stacking up and calling in favors like the culture around us. No, I am writing this in my own hand as a legal contract. I am going to pay the whole thing.
How like the king in Jesus’ story. Paul wanted to pay the debt because he knew Onesimus could not, and he did not want Philemon to stagger under that load of injustice either.
It would already be huge if Philemon was willing to forgive the injury and spare Onesimus the punishment he deserved.
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