Prior to these reflections, I knew Philemon could be read as meaning that Paul sent an errant Onesimus back to face his master and the consequences of his actions. But, the more you understand this letter, the less such readings make sense. And, while I was also aware that the letter to Philemon has historically been coopted as a justification for slavery, I wasn’t prepared for just how contemporary such views are. From North American 1689 fundamentalists to Oxford historians such as Diarmaid MacCullough seem to overlook both Paul’s heart for Onesimus as an individual and the empowered context in which Paul sends Onesimus back to positively confront the man who was once his master.
Philemon v12: “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.”
“I am sending him back to you…” Of course on a surface level, I can understand why “sending him back to you” a) sounds like a daunting task for anyone and b) “to you” sounds like an injunction for Onesimus to return pertinently to his aggrieved owner. However, reading the rest of the letter reveals that this is nothing like what is happening here.
Onesimus was not sent back to kowtow, he was empowered to lovingly confront Philemon with his intrinsic value as a human imageo die, with a personal testimony of new life in Christ.
He was not sent back to just anyone, rather he is sent back to the host and probably head of the local church. As Paul has said already, this is an opportunity for Philemon as a human, as a Christian and as a church leader to demonstrate the completeness of his own conversion based on the way he treats Onesimus.
At this point, it is worth remembering that Onesimus was sent back into a real interpersonal situation. So often we can read the new testament letters as theoretical, but rather Paul is establishing the context for a real reconciliation. That said, as far as we know, Onesimus is travelling alone and therefore has the daunting task of walking out the confrontation and reconciliation that Paul envisioned.
Paul’s context for the visit, that Onesimus should be handled as carefully as Paul’s “very heart”, is therefore critical to our understanding of how to read the letter. The actual word is not “heart”, which is usually kardia in Greek, but rather it is the far more visceral “splagchnon”, which is basically means spleen.
Why is this important? Because it relates to compassion and “tender mercies”. Indeed it is the same word used later in 1 John 3:17 where it says “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart [one’s “spleen”, one’s “bowels of compassion”] against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” This feels particularly resonant to me because of the asymmetrical power dynamic between Philemon and Onesimus and because Philemon was a wealthy man.
Neither did Paul send back the same Onesimus that left (v16). Onesimus has clearly been transformed by meeting Jesus, which changes everything for a church that had no slave or free (Gal 3:28).
Another reason why people often misread Philemon is because they fail to fully consider why Paul sent Onesimus back. Remember the custom was that the person delivering the letter read to the congregation. That means Onesimus was literally delivering what to us is the word of God to church elders. With that in mind, and considering that so many of the other named ministry associates of Paul were preachers, could it have been that Onesimus was sent back to both model and communicate the message of God’s love to the church in Philemon’s house.
Scripture doesn’t say, but history tells us that Onesimus ended up becoming the Bishop of Ephesus, overseeing the church in the very place where his former master became a Christian.