St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, virgin
(Philemon 7-20, Psalm 146, Luke 17:20-25)
The Letter to Philemon differs from all other Pauline letters in the New Testament in several ways. It is the shortest of the letters – so short that the monastic editor centuries ago did not choose to divide it into chapters. Also, it is Paul’s only canonical letter intended for an individual (although its salutation includes a number of people). Finally, the letter involves one specific issue – the acceptance of the slave Onesimus back into Philemon’s household. Despite its brevity and specificity, we are wise to consider this letter well. One author has written a very successful book calling “Philemon’s problem,” “the problem of any believer.”
Onesimus was a runaway slave who Paul instructed in the Christian faith. Now Paul is sending him back to his master with the appeal that he be accepted as a brother. Paul is at least suggesting that that Philemon not punish Onesimus for his abandonment. He is also hinting that Philemon set Onesimus free. Of course, even the first request might create trouble for Philemon. Slaves’ misconduct was expected to be punished to deter further transgression of rules. If Philemon were to free Philemon, the other slaves would like beat the same path to Paul’s door so that they too might enjoy liberty.
Gratefully, the institution of slavery does not exist today as it did in Paul’s time and in most of the world until quite recently. But still Christians are plagued by the dilemma of what to do when contemporary norms conflict with our religious beliefs. Should we fight in a war that our government starts with a preemptive strike? Should we vote for a political candidate with many excellent credentials but who legitimizes abortion? Should we shop at stores whose practices reduce employee health care benefits? Scripture provides us no easy answers to these questions just as Paul gives Philemon no clear directive. We should, however, grapple conscientiously with the dilemmas searching for the right thing to do, again just as Paul expects Philemon to consider Onesimus a brother.