For the next three days, we will be reading from three of the shortest letters in the Christian Scriptures: St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon and St. John’s Second and Third Letters. So the next three days present us with a rare opportunity. Because these letters are so short, we read from them very infrequently. If I am not mistaken, we read from the Letter to Philemon on only one other occasion.
The letter itself is typical of St. Paul’s letters in that it starts with the usual greeting and thanksgiving and ends with the mention of greetings from other notable first century Christians. The body of the letter, nineteen short verses, is addressed to a slave owner who has obviously lent one of his slaves to Paul during his imprisonment. It is helpful for us to remember that prisoners were not provided for by their jailers. They were dependent upon others on the outside of the prison for food and for clothing. St. Paul spent years in prison and wrote some of his finest letters while he was imprisoned. He frequently mentions those who are sustaining him while he languishes behind bars.
The Letter to Philemon presents us with St. Paul at his most devious or mischievous. He plays upon Philemon’s sensibilities in making his desires known. He wants Philemon to release Onesimus, the slave, from his servitude. He makes his plea by flattery: I have experienced much joy and encouragement from your love. . . (Philemon 7a). He also uses his position in the community: Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love, . . . (Philemon 8-9a). He plays the “age” card: being as I am, Paul, an old man, . . . (Philemon 9b). He not so subtly mentions his plight: and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus (Philemon 9c). These persuasive tactics are followed up by the reminder that Philemon is in St. Paul’s debt: May I not tell you that you owe me your very self (Philemon 19b).
No where do we learn the outcome of this situation. However, that’s really not the point. St. Paul is using this situation to further the Gospel and its contention that all of us are called upon to put the needs of others first. While the letter is a wonderful study in the persuasive argumentation that surely aided St. Paul in making converts to Jesus, the underlying message simply reiterates what St. Paul has written many times before. The case of Philemon and Onesimus puts a human face on the need to consider the needs of others before our own needs just as Jesus put our needs ahead of his own by accepting death for our sake. Carrying the message of the Letter to Philemon with us this day should urge us all, in St. Paul’s words: Refresh my heart in Christ (Philemon 20b).
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator