Negotiating the master-slave relationship in a church family: the letter to Philemon

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s letters. (That hasn’t stopped someone writing a 600 page commentary on its 25 verses!) In the Roman Catholic lectionary selected verses are read on the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C. The corresponding Proper 18 in the Revised Common Lectionary, as so often, lengthens the reading to almost the whole letter, leaving out only the closing greetings. 

While some of the precise details are obscure, the overall picture is generally agreed to be straightforward. Philemon seems to be a member of the church at Colossae, who found his Christian faith through Paul’s ministry. Onesimus is a runaway slave of Philemon who has ended up in Paul’s company, and been visiting him while Paul is under arrest. As a result of his contact with Paul, he has come to faith in Christ independently of the commitment made by his master. 

Slavery was everywhere in the Roman world. Picture via Wikipedia (public domain)

According to their shared culture Paul owes Philemon the duty of returning his runaway (Philm 13-14). Equally, as another of Paul’s converts, Philemon owes Paul his gratitude for receiving the gift of Christ through his preaching (Philm 17-19). Paul is therefore sending Onesimus back, with the letter for the church at Colossae (Col 4:9) to which Philemon belongs. 

The letter is very carefully crafted to discharge Paul’s social obligations to Philemon in sending Onesimus back, while persuading Philemon to discharge his spiritual and moral obligations to Paul by setting Onesimus free. As a whole the letter forms an important counterbalance to those passages elsewhere which show Paul accepting the practice of slavery without much protest. It is also an illuminating window into how the language of reciprocal gift and obligation works in an individual relationship.

This is one of those occasions I would encourage the reader to ask the preacher how they are going to pronounce the names in the letter. Traditional English pronunciation has said something like Fye-lee-mon and Oh-ness-i-muss. Other people base their pronunciation on the Greek stresses, more like Feel-ay-mon and Oh-nay-see-moss. (the bold syllables indicate the stresses. It’s not that one is right and the other wrong, just that it might be helpful in a letter in which the people are so much the heart of the argument, if both reader and preacher use the same pronunciation of the name.

(For further general guidance on pronunciation of difficult names, see this post.)

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