Grace and peace from Abba God and Our Savior Jesus Christ
There is a rather interesting story behind this short letter of Paul. The recipient of the letter, Philemon, incurred a debt to Paul. Most likely something connected to Paul’s visit to Colossae. Subsequent to that visit Paul was imprisoned by the Romans.
Meanwhile, Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, escaped. In the understanding of Roman society, Onesimus incurred a debt to his master. Eventually, Onesimus was caught and round up Paul’s cellmate.
A friendship grows and Onesimus is converted – now a fellow christian with Philemon. Eventually Onesimus is freed from jail and Paul sends him back to Philemon. Paul also sends a letter of appeal to Philemon and offers to repay Onesimus’ debt. Onesimus arrives in Colossae with the letter to which Philemon responds in the positive (see v. 21). Paul, still in jail, anticipates a future visit to Philemon’s home.
What is unique about this letter and somewhat even contrary to the advice of 2 Timothy (a possible Pauline letter) is that here Paul is in earnest seeking the release of the slave Onesimus. While tame to our sensibilities it was quite a revolutionary letter given its intent for public reading. Of course today we would say it does not go far enough – and it doesn’t. But a closer look at the letter reveals an interesting understanding of how the Sacred plays out in the lives of those who are unequal.
Following a suggestion by Richard Melick, Jr. the central message of this letter may be the idea of community, here understood as “interchange” between people. Paul presents the close relationship he has with Philemon. Then, Paul presents the close relationship he has with Onesimus. Both people have a good friendship with Paul, and are “united” through Paul. Due to the close relationship between each person and Paul, there should be close ties, or “interchange” between Philemon and his runaway slave, Onesimus.
This mirrors an insight of the world religions. Due to our connections with the Sacred we share a certain close relationship with those others who are also connected with the Holy. Though we are different we come together, or interchange through the Divine who is the meeting place between us.
While Paul’s salutation, quoted above, is traditional, the use of the word “grace” is an indication of the community and interchange Paul sought to outline. Grace is an overused word which has lost its meaning. In the word’s rooted understanding grace simply means acceptance. Here Paul appeals to a slave owner to accept a runaway slave as God has accepted the slave owner – as a beloved child.
Revolutionary indeed! How different would the queer life be if anti-queer persons could accept us as God does? If we could accept homophobic people as God accepts us?