"Good God, woman, I used my thumb!"

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Fun With Philemon

For as it was shown how spiritual prelates relate to their subjects, so here [Paul] shows how temporal masters should relate to their temporal servants, and how the faithful servant to his master.
~St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Preface to his Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to Philemon

Philemon is unique in the Bible as a private letter written by Paul to Philemon, regarding in particular the reception of the runaway slave Onesimus. Because of its short, direct nature and concern with slaves and masters, the traditional interpretation of it has been as an insight into Paul's thoughts regarding slavery and the inherent dignity in every person. This is indeed a good reading of the letter, and I by no means intend to replace it here. By I would like to suggest another possible reading of the letter, a spiritual one which applies to my life and to many others as well.

The historical background for the letter is as follows: Philemon was a Christian convert and citizen of Colossae whose house was used as a place of worship by the Colossian converts. He probably met Paul while staying in Ephesus and was converted there before returning to Colossae. Tradition places him as the first bishop of Colossae, and he along with Onesimus were martyred in the general persecution under Nero. The particular concern of the letter is with regards to Onesimus, a slave of Philemon who ran away, was converted by St. Paul, and then was sent back to Philemon with Paul's blessing.

The temporal matters dealt with in the letter have been discussed by the interpreters and exegetes, and it suffices to say here that it is with regards to slaves and masters. But the point I would like to raise is what is revealed in the letter when we read it in a spiritual sense with Christ as our master, one's self as the slave, and the Church taking the role of Paul as interceder and commissioner. If read like this, Paul's letter to Philemon can be seen as the perfect advice for the treatment of the revert and how the revert should approach his return to Catholic life.

Specifically, the revert asks Christ, through the Church, to accept himself back as a slave, but not only as slave but as someone "useful both to you and to me." The revert is now useful to Christ as a follower and disciple, and to the Church as a foot soldier in whatever manner he is needed. And for the revert, there is this consolation for his former life: "Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good - no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother." The Church then commissions the revert to return to Christ and then, with overtones of "Ecclesia supplex", asks that "If he [the revert] has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me."

There are other little kernels of truth and various connections that can be made here, but I encourage you to find them yourself. I think this reading can give Philemon some more exposure and thought that has generally been given it in the eyes of the faithful.


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