How much should the rich be taxed in America?
Okay, I don’t really care what you think about that. I am concerned with how you think about such things, though. The way we consider political viewpoints tends to influence how we deal with conflicts in the Christian community. The Apostle Paul wanted his friends to focus on how they thought about divisive issues in his letter to Philemon.
Paul begins the letter differently than he does any other (Philemon 1-7). In his other letters in the New Testament he usually refers to himself as an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Here he’s a “prisoner”. He was a master at knowing and effectively communicating with his audience. From the start he’s doing his best to identify with Onesimus. He’ll be identifying with Philemon as well.
As I mentioned in my last post, slavery in first century Rome looked much different than in American history. Slaves were generally treated well and had rights. But, runaway slaves were treated poorly. By running away from their masters they lost their rights as far as the Roman government was concerned.
Who knows why Onesimus left? If it was because of harsh treatment, Paul would certainly have pointed that out to Philemon (Ephesians 6:5-9). So here’s a perspective that you and I don’t have: he’s a good man who took care of slaves and whose reputation had been tarnished. Whatever good faith he had given Onesimus had been thrown back in his face. Onesimus is doing a brave thing by coming back and admitting his fault (which Paul, not doubt, had pointed out to him). Now Paul is making a big ask of Philemon: to go against the grain of tradition and propriety, to plunge into humility for the sake of Jesus Christ and the unity of his Body.
Check out verse 6. This “partnership” is a concept that runs throughout Paul’s writing. It’s the Greek word kononia, and it has to do with Christians sharing their spiritual journeys together. There may be many things we don’t have in common, but our common faith in Jesus Christ needs to trump every other difference. For that to happen, we must do our best in considering the situation of everyone else in the church (1st Corinthians 12:26).
Paul writes with confidence, knowing that Philemon will do the right thing. If he’s correct, imagine what that church would have looked like. Think of the newly found joy and freedom they must have tasted because Philemon and Onesimus had the courage to consider the plight of their partners.
Maybe it’s time for our church today to do the same.
I’d love for you to comment. (But really, I’d rather not hear about your view on taxes! I’m sure we’ve all heard it before.)