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Savage debates

What a strange incidence that a very short personal letter from Paul to a fellow Christian should end up in the New Testament writings. Such a gem is Paul’s letter to Philemon. We probably hear it just once every three years and miss its deep significance, even for today’s world.

Onesimus was a slave who had fled from his master Philemon in Colossae and journeyed to Rome. There he met Paul (then himself a prisoner) and became a convert to Christianity.

In the ancient world slaves were commonplace, a vital economic cog in the vast Roman machine. They had no rights; they could be executed at the master’s whim, their wives and children sold off. Though slaves in Israel did not live under such a harsh regime, they were still the master’s possessions, his chattels.

Paul sends Onesimus back but bearing a letter that could transform the relationship, describing him as, “my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (9)“ This letter, moreover, is addressed to the entire Christian community in Colossae, inviting them to work out new ways of seeing each other as a brother or sister, regardless of their legal status.

Our own society is riddled with savage debates over the status of sexual identity, and the powers and rights of parents, schools and the state. Various groups seek to impose their views by law, litigation or protest. From Paul they might learn to avoid the gulfs of hatred and distrust over such issues scattered throughout the Western world. Paul did not try to abolish slavery but pleaded for a new way of seeing individual personal value, based on the example of Jesus Christ whose death pointed to new way of being family and fellow citizens, and so new ways of seeing and treating one another, “you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a brother.” (16) Over time, the impact of such views helped dismantle the institution of slavery itself.

23rd Sunday year C1

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