Slavery and the Cost of Discipleship

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Philemon 1:1-21

Tradition supplies a backstory for the short book Philemon: the slave Onesimus had run away from his owner, seeking refuge in the anonymity of Rome. But there he encountered Paul and was converted. In fact, from the text, we know very little about what how Onesimus ended up with Paul and less about what followed. Still the letter continues to speak to us about power and the cost of discipleship, a cost spelled out in no uncertain terms in today’s gospel.

Paul’s “dear friend and co-worker” Philemon, a believer whose faith Paul praises, had a slave. It shocks us now to realize that the early Christian communities included not only slaves but also slave-owners. Being baptized did not automatically mean that a slave-owner would free his or her slaves. And this is not because ancient slavery was a humane institution. Slavery meant then as now that a person is property. If an owner decided to beat a slave or to use a slave for sex, that slave had no right to resist. While a slave might have a family, the owner was under no obligation to honor those ties.

Perhaps Philemon was not cruel to Onesimus. But in the ancient world, even though a slave might be well-fed, educated, and even able to wield some of the owner’s power, slavery meant shame, because it meant being unable to demand respect. Philemon has power. Onesimus has none.

This should help us to understand what he meant when Jesus acted as slave in washing his disciples’ feet or when he told his followers to become the slaves of all. (Mark 10:44) Taking on this lowest status meant having no control over one’s own life, no claim to family, no rights before the law.

We sometimes soften translations, reading what is “slave” in Greek as “servant,” but today’s gospel reminds us that Jesus did not merely say that his followers should be helpful to others. He told them to take the lowest place, to respond to insult and injury not with the assertion of their rights but with shocking generosity (Matt. 5:38-42). What was clearly in his society the most degraded position, slavery, Jesus claimed and re-imagined as a position of blessedness, of companionship with himself, and of testimony to faith in resurrection.

Paul writes his letter to Philemon from prison, probably in Rome. He is in chains, awaiting judgment, powerless. He is in a condition near that of a slave, his only power coming from his status as ‘father’ to the many he has baptized. In this letter, he gives up the comfort he gets from having Onesimus with him. The power that remains to him, as “father” in faith, he sets aside in writing to Philemon. More: he offers to take on any debts Onesimus owes. How would a man in chains pay them?

Onesimus himself, already a slave, is consenting to give up whatever safety Rome and Paul had offered him from his offended owner. Whether he had run away from Philemon in the first place, he does not run away now. He will go back to his new brother in faith, facing the risk that he will be greeted with a beating permitted by law. The slave and the prisoner stand before the faithful wealthy law-abiding Christian who is their brother and ask: now what will you do?

This is a moment of grace. When Philemon and his church read this letter, they will have to decide whether they can pay the cost of the work they began in baptism. Paul, in chains, cannot pay Onesimus’ debt, whatever it is. If the debt is attributed to him, the debt will have to be forgiven. If they grant Paul’s request to have Onesimus with him, Philemon loses even more.

But most of all, if they accept Onesimus as Paul asks, as himself, they are upsetting the social order that allows a slave to be an object rather than a brother. Everybody else has slaves they treat as objects. The law says it is permissible. How would society run if we changed that? If we accept one baptized slave as a brother, will all slaves want to claim the same? How much will following Christ end up costing Philemon?

Perhaps no one who was not himself giving all he had, even his life, for the gospel could have asked so much. But Paul, with his characteristic mix of boldness and humility, asks nothing short of everything, because that is what the gospel asks. Paul can speak authoritatively about what joy and honor it is to take up the cross and follow Jesus. He is asking Onesimus to risk his life, and we can only wonder at what it cost Onesimus to take this step toward his owner-brother. Paul– and Onesimus– ask Philemon to pay a high cost, and they give Philemon the opportunity to encounter Jesus’ message in a new way, a chance to leave the old comforts and ties behind, to enlarge his family by welcoming an unexpected new brother.

If we are inclined to throw stones at Philemon for owning a slave, we would be wise to notice the glass house we live in. We now agree that enslaving a person is a crime, but we live in an economic order that uses some people’s bodies for the economic benefit of others. Slavery, in new guises and usually hidden from the view of consumers, continues to be practiced in the US and abroad.

One small example: men sign up for seasonal work in Brazil and are driven into the rain forest, out of reach of cell phones, surrounded by guns, forced into dangerous work without medical care, decent food and shelter, or any pay, to make charcoal that helps turn iron into the steel used in our everyday products. Most of these slaves are baptized Christians. Most of those who enslave them would also claim to be Christian, and many of those who reap the benefits of their slave-labor identify that way as well.

We know, vaguely, that such injustices go on, but most of us get through the day (or the year, or our lives) by avoiding thinking about it. We are not breaking the law, after all. We develop a habit of indifference, and so we deafen ourselves to the invitation to give up our rights in favor of the gospel, to find ourselves in the family God is making.

If we say that such problems are too big or too complicated for us combat, that we don’t know how to begin, that we don’t know where such a challenge would end, then today’s readings may be that moment of grace for us. Who will we acknowledge as brother and sister, and what cost are we willing to pay to join in the fellowship of Jesus?

Paul asks Philemon to count the cost of discipleship; have we?

For more on slavery then, see Jennifer Glancy’s Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011). For help with how to face it now, see Vincent J. Miller, “Slavery and Commodity Chains: Fighting the Globalization of Indifference,” America, January 2, 2014.

Image credit: Melanie Twelves, “Christ in the Desert”

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