Jos 12-14; Phm 1; Psalm 137-138
Whenever we read Scripture we need to be alert to two significant hindrances to hearing the text. One is relatively easy to deal with, the other presents us with far more problems.
The first is that of the cultural situation out of which the Scriptures are written. In other words there are elements in the text which we might either not understand, or worse misunderstand because we do not know ‘what life was like in those days’. [Misunderstanding is of course far worse than not understanding. When we misunderstand we think we understand and so may well act or speak on the basis of this and who knows where that might lead. At least if we do not understand the text, then we can be silent before it – which as most of our predecessors in faith would tell us is ‘No Bad Thing’.
That of course can be relatively easily remedied – certainly for anyone reading this. the internet has a wealth of information about such matters as context and with a wise and trusted guide, we can learn a tremendous amount about such matters. Indeed our knowledge of these things has grown exponentially over the last century or so . . . which isn’t necessarily a good thing . . . but another time
It is the second problem which provides us with more of a problem – that of not understanding how where we stand, our culture, our basic understandings about the world in which we live. Not understanding how these shape our reading of the text. It is as if we are wearing a pair of glasses which we’ve had on for so long, we forget they are there. We assume our vision is 20/20. [This is similar to the assumptions we make about what others are saying to us – both of these problems exist to one degree or another. We are aware that we might not understand someone else, but we forget that to truly understand them, we must also understand ourselves :)]
So we come to the text of Philemon, and as many have done, we may well throw up our hands in horror. Here is the Apostle Paul, apparently commending slavery!! . . .
So, firstly, cultural situation. There is no social security. Life is tough. People inevitably find themselves in situations where the only option they have is to sell themselves, or starve. One aspect of slavery in the times of the early church is that for SOME slaves, those with kind owners, it actually provided them with a degree of comfort and security that many of their contemporaries would not have known. This is not to condone it – for a human cannot own another human . . . and of course we in our age know that is true and we don’t have slavery . . . . . .
Second problem, we don’t recognise how prevalent slavery of one form or another is in our world today. Firstly there is the most base form, where people can only sell themselves for the meagrest of food and shelter. Indeed like it or not, a not insubstantial segment of our world’s economic order relies on what might look to the eye of a contemporary of Paul just like slavery. It’s just that we don’t call it that.
Where folk have no choice about their work ( a comparative luxury ) – where taking what is on ‘offer’, on whatever terms is a matter of life or death – then not to call it slavery is mere semantics, an attempt to suggest that WE would never engage in such things.
But more – come to Paul – for he teaches us we all can learn from , especially those of us who emply our brother and sister Christians . . .
For Paul appeals to Philemon that he receive Onesimus back, not just forgiven for running away, but as his brother in Christ. For Paul the relationship Philemon shares with Onesimus over rules the wider story in society about slaves and owners. None of us own our brothers and sisters – we are their keepers . . .
Imagine what it might be like to work for a Christian who saw you as a brother first and an employee . . . well a very distant second.
As we began considering – there are two problems we face when we come to the text of Scripture – both ways of seeing the world, or struggling to see it. In this text we are confronted with a New way of seeing the World and those who dwell in it – as brothers and sisters, as fellow heirs with Christ.