Philemon, a study in ethics

We might be tempted to dismiss the second reading for Sunday, September 4th, the reading from Philemon, as a quaint artifact from a bygone era. For we might overlook that there are parts of the world in which slavery exists to this day, not the least in what is euphemistically called human trafficking. In the exotic land far away known as the  commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there have been several hundred documented cases this year. The preponderance of these cases involve young women, captured and sold into silvery  for the exact purposes such as you already suppose. So, slavery is not just a thing of the past, bygone era. Sadly while it is less overt, it is still a thing that is very much with us to this day. For those of you who are fans of the books written by the late Tom Clancy, this subject is treated one of his earlier novels, Without Remorse.

Well, be that as it may, the fascinating thing about the reading is that it is a fascinating paradigm in the application of Christian ethics. In the mores and values of Paul’s day, slavery was, of course an accepted social institution. Households were largely dependent on the work of slaves to manage and run the extended household. Among many  folk, there was not the paradigm of the nuclear family. Families tended to be multigenerational extended households with staff to make them function smoothly. Some slaves were in fairly exalted positions, stewards over the whole functioning of the household; others were in less glamorous positions. But when it came to it, in the law of the land and in local custom, the head of the household’s authority was absolute. While it was not often invoked, the head of the household held the power of life and death over all in the household. That include not only slaves, but spouses and children as well.

So Paul is walking an interesting thin line. That thin line is about moral authority in the face of the accepted behaviors of the time. Nowhere would it be an expectation that a slave would be treated in the elevated role as a brother in Christ. Were Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ, in most circles it would be considered a shocking precedent. Absolutely scandalous.  How could one NOT punish a run away slave? Had the word gotten out, might it not encourage other slaves to flee? Philemon is put in the uncomfortable position of having to put his new found Christian Faith into the full implications of practice.

And What of Onesimus? What level of trust might he have to summon to go back into an awkward situation, with his only defense a letter from Paul and with his life potentially on the line?

So this lesson is about:

  • Moral courage and the desire to do the right thing,
  • It is about the complexity and the difficulty of reconciliation and forgiveness, and the healing of broken relationships
  • It is about the challenge of having trust in another
  • It causes us to think about how choosing the right thing might cost us in the eyes of others, who are all too ready to settle for the conventional rather than the exceptional.

What would you have done were you Philemon?

What would you have done were you Onesimus?

And now for the really tough question: how does your answer impinge on the moral decision making that we are called to day by day in this confusing and complex world in which we live?


Canon Greg+



About canongreg

I have been Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Wellsboro, PA since 1994.
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