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.
Philemon and his church were good believers. And they were kind. But they had a blindspot when it came to class and/or race. They didn’t know who Onesimus really was. They didn’t know a) how intrinsically valuable he is just because he was made in the image of God or b) who He had become in Christ. Now Paul begins to show them:
Having begun by re-reading Philemon in light of its protagonist Onesimus, the reflections continue using the three sons typology of Luke 15 as an interpretative tool.
These reflections on Onesimus and the letter to Philemon came about after I was asked to speak on the subject as part of a discipleship and outreach series. After an initial reading, I had a sense of what God wanted to say through the text. But in order to be prepared, I read the short letter to Philemon in German, Greek and eight different English translations. Several things struck me while reading and re-reading the text – not least that Paul and Philemon get most of the attention when actually Onesimus should be at the centre.