Last night we looked at the short letter to Philemon, seeking to understand the application behind Paul’s appeal to Philemon to accept back his slave, Onesimus, as a brother in Christ.
“I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” (v4-6)
What Paul asked Philemon to do was revolutionary. The culture of Rome (and those countries occupied by Rome) was steeped in slavery. Those who fought against Rome knew that they could be sent to the slave market if taken as a prisoner-of-war. A slave was a non-person (in a story by Plutarch, the slave does not even have a name!), useful for providing labour or to add to their owners’ social standing, but without rights of their own. Slavery was a brutal, violent and dehumanising instituttion, but it was the accepted norm. A slave was thought of as another possession belonging to the one who had paid the price; a slave was required to come to his owner’s aid if attacked. Some owners were kinder than others, but the example of Vedius Pollio, who ordered a slave to be thrown into a pond as food for the fish (because he had taken a goblet), was by no means unusual at this time.
Paul’s request that Philemon accept his ‘useless’ slave back as ‘useful’ (a play on the name ‘Onesimus’) was truly radical and counter-cultural. Philemon was being asked to stand out as different. What kind of precedent would this be?!
We live in two worlds simultaneously. The kingdom of God and the culture in which we live are intersecting worlds, and the level of the intersection will determine to some extent how we live. If the two cultures apparently overlap, there is not much conflict, but as the two cultures separate, there is a visible distance between them which often results in the church being persecuted because it is clearly perceived as being at odds with the prevailing culture.
God has called His people to be salt and light in the cultures in which they live. A little bit of salt affects a meal radically. This idea that God’s people will have more influence than their numbers warrant (see Lev 26:6-8 and Josh 23:9-10, where a hundred will chase ten thousand or one of you routs a thousand ‘because the Lord your God fights for you’) is seen throughout the whole Bible. Jesus has called us to live according to His kingdom rules, which are very different from the accepted norms of our present-day culture. He has called us to think about the culture in which we are soaked and live according to His principles rather than follow the ideals and principles of the world without thought, simply because they are there. Just as Philemon was challenged to do something that was culturally different to how slave owners behaved, we are called to be ‘in the world, but not of the world’ and to ‘let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ (Matt 5:16)