A sermon on Paul’s letter to Philemon, for Proper 18, Year C.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – Amen.
“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” Have y’all ever heard anyone say that before? There seems to be an epidemic going around these days, an epidemic of confidence in our ability to interpret the Bible literally. Christians across the spectrum of beliefs proclaim with certainty that the words on the page mean exactly what they say, and if we question their actions (these Christians’ actions, that is), then we must be questioning the Bible, and therefore must be questioning God Himself.
I’d like to challenge that notion a bit. So this morning I want to look at a short reading that is a textbook example of what can go wrong when we are just certain we know how to interpret the Bible perfectly. Paul’s letter to Philemon, which we heard in its entirety this morning, is the shortest of Paul’s letters. It’s also the only one of the seven that virtually all scholars agree is genuinely Pauline which is written to an individual. Paul is in prison, probably in Ephesus, and he writes to Philemon who is a member of the church Paul founded in Colossae. Philemon appears to be wealthy. Paul describes the church as being “In your house”, which implies that Philemon is the primary patron for the community. So Paul, consummate church planter, would have reason to flatter Philemon in this letter. He certainly wouldn’t want Philemon to be affronted, and to take his pledge away in a huff. That might make an end of the Colossian community.
So Paul is in a pickle when Philemon’s slave Onesimus comes to him in prison. Some scholars have claimed that Onesimus is running away. This would be a dangerous move, for which he could be punished with crucifixion. Others have suggested that Onesimus would be crazy to run to someone who knew his master, so he came to Paul seeking his mediation with a cruel master. Certainly, slaves in Roman times could seek out secondary patrons, men of status, as Paul was, being a Roman citizen, to make entreaty with their masters on their behalf. Paul’s letter to Philemon appears to be that entreaty.
Now, during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Transatlantic slave trade was booming throughout North America, the Caribbean, and Europe, Christians instead tended to interpret this letter as a straightforward proscription. Slaves must be returned to their masters. Indeed, any entreaty to be made to slaveowners must be an appeal on the basis of love, not a moral command. Paul’s letter to Philemon was used to justify the practice of slavery for hundreds of years. Its readers, faithful Christians all, were confident in their ability to interpret the Bible literally. But let’s take a closer look at the text, and see if we come to a different conclusion.
Paul begins with warm greetings for Philemon. He thanks God for him, and shares what he prays that God might do for Philemon. He goes on: “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” Paul has the authority to command Philemon. Indeed, as Philemon’s baptizer, he was considered to be Philemon’s father, with all of the paterfamilias authority that provided in Roman times. Paul has now become the father of Onesimus as well, by baptizing him a Christian while in prison in Ephesus. Onesimus and Philemon, then, are brothers. Furthermore, the word in Greek Paul keeps using is doulos. In modern translations we usually translate it as servant, but doulos means slave. There’s another word for servant entirety. Paul considers himself a doulos of Christ. He says that all over his letters. Paul is setting up a kinship relationship here, in which all of these men are brothers of one Father, God, and slaves of one master, Christ. In doing so, he sets up a set of obligations, reciprocal responsibility of fathers and sons, rather than the oppression of slavery. Slavery, for Paul, is 100% voluntary, and should only be to Jesus Christ.
Paul goes on, making a pun on Onesimus’s name, which means useful. Paul calls Onesimus his own heart. Can Philemon abuse, punish, command, own his father’s own heart? Paul continues, beginning to lay on the guilt a little thick, “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel.” Philemon ought to be here, at the prison, visiting Paul who is imprisoned for the sake of the gospel. You see, in those days, there was no prison system, no cafeteria, no food available for prisoners whatsoever. Prisoners needed friends and family members to bring them any supplies they could, or they would starve to death. When Jesus tells his followers to visit the imprisoned, this is what he means. Philemon is failing in his duty to care for Paul while he is in prison, so Paul suggests that perhaps they all pretend he sent Onesimus in his place, to fulfill his responsibilities.
Paul concludes, really driving home his point now: “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” If you consider me your partner ….. If Philemon responds violently, is he saying he does not consider Paul to be his partner? Paul swears to pay anything to Philemon that Onesimus owes, but adds this zinger, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” In this letter, Paul boxes Philemon in, leaving him no choice but to accept Onesimus, “No longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.”
Now let me be clear: the apostle Paul is no liberator. He does not advocate for abolition of the horrendous practice of slavery. He is working within the sinful system that exists, rather than seeking to turn the world upside down. He’s going to leave that to Jesus. But can you, honestly, interpret this total guilt trip of a letter in such a way that supports the enslavement of human beings? Can you read this letter and think, “Gosh, what’s really important here is respecting the property rights of slave owners.” Of course not! Of course not. But the church read this letter that way for generations. This Scripture was used and abused so that those who sought their own financial gain could use and abuse the people they owned.
Knowing this history, how dare we stand with such confidence that our interpretation of Scripture is 100% correct, absolutely the right way, handed down from God on high? How dare we be sure that our motives are pure, and that we are untainted by our own desire to interpret Scripture in such a way that benefits us? We must take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. We know its history. A history in which unscrupulous people have used God’s holy word to justify violent dehumanization of millions of people. Rather than claiming we just helplessly adhere to the words on the page, we must recognize that ultimately Scripture is a tool. It is a lens that allows us to see God. The purpose of the Bible isn’t merely to exist and be honored, but to show us God. And when we treat the Bible as holier than God, and holier than people made in the image of God, well, we have gotten to a bad place.
We must also recognize that we do not look at Scripture in a vacuum. I say nothing about the fact that we are reading it in translation, and that all translation is itself interpretation. Episcopalians talk about the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. My theology professor taught us that it’s actually more like a telescope. We look at God through Scripture. We look at Scripture through Tradition, through Church consensus, over thousands of years and across the globe. But as we’ve seen this morning, even that can lead us astray. So we also use the lens of Reason: we use our experiences, our knowledge, what science tells us, and what we hear from those on the margins of society, and we gather that into our interpretation before we act.
“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” has led to a lot of pain and oppression. That cannot be our attitude. Instead, let us take the advice of St. Augustine, “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” Let us approach the Scriptures humbly, seeking to hear of God’s mercy for ourselves and others, rather than using them to confidently denounce those whom we have a vested interest in sending away.