The Runaway Slave went over the Hill
Tomorrow I am preaching on Luke 14 and Philemon, the set readings for the day. I couldn’t quite believe that Philemon had come up in the lectionary again as it feels like only a few weeks ago that it last came up and I preached on it! I dug out the sermon and found that it was three years ago - as it would be. Quite scary! As someone quoted to me recently: ‘The days are long, but the years are short’!
The standard understanding of Philemon is that it was written by Paul when he was in prison in Rome. Onesimus, a runaway slave, who belongs, coincidentally, to a friend of Paul’s, meets up with Paul and is converted. The letter to Philemon is Paul writing to his friend on behalf of his convert seeking mercy for him.
I have never been entirely happy with this explanation.
The idea of Onesimus leaving Colossae, running all the way to Rome, and then bumping into Paul, who is in prison there, just seems a little bit too coincidental. Strange coincidences do happen and God can make the strangest happen, but this still feels a bit unreal. It is for this reason that some scholars have suggested that the imprisonment was in Ephesus, which is much nearer to Colossae than is Rome. The problem is that we don’t know for sure that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus and, in any case, it still seems a bit of a coincidence.
In my last sermon three years ago, I still stuck with the 'runaway slave' idea. The main point is, after all, about him being a slave and Philemon being a master and the difference Christ makes. How Onesimus came to meet Paul is not a crucial issue. Re-reading Philemon this time around, however, I became conscious just how much of a guess it is that Onesimus was a 'runaway slave'. So I decided to spend some time on the commentaries seeing what light, if any, they could shed.
I was quite encouraged that while most do still take the ‘runaway slave’ position, one major commentary, at least, does not, namely that by J D G Dunn. Dunn suggests that Onesimus might have deliberately sought Paul’s help, knowing that Paul was a friend of his master. Perhaps Onesimus had done something wrong and was worried about the consequences, perhaps it was just an argument. Whatever, I think this explanation makes better sense of the letter, wherever it was that Paul was in prison.
As I say, it is not a crucial issue, but what it does demonstrate to me is how much we take for granted when we study the Bible and how easy it is to accept something as true when the Biblical evidence for it is actually quite little. I believe that it is vital to take seriously what the Bible says, but it is just as important to make sure that it is what the Bible says and not just our assumptions about what it says. It also underlines how much we don’t know and that ought to lead us to greater humility when we express our opinions.