Slavery and the Cost of Discipleship

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Philemon 1:1-21

Tradition supplies a backstory for the short book Philemon: the slave Onesimus had run away from his owner, seeking refuge in the anonymity of Rome. But there he encountered Paul and was converted. In fact, from the text, we know very little about what how Onesimus ended up with Paul and less about what followed. Still the letter continues to speak to us about power and the cost of discipleship, a cost spelled out in no uncertain terms in today’s gospel.

Paul’s “dear friend and co-worker” Philemon, a believer whose faith Paul praises, had a slave. It shocks us now to realize that the early Christian communities included not only slaves but also slave-owners. Being baptized did not automatically mean that a slave-owner would free his or her slaves. And this is not because ancient slavery was a humane institution. Slavery meant then as now that a person is property. If an owner decided to beat a slave or to use a slave for sex, that slave had no right to resist. While a slave might have a family, the owner was under no obligation to honor those ties.

Perhaps Philemon was not cruel to Onesimus. But in the ancient world, even though a slave might be well-fed, educated, and even able to wield some of the owner’s power, slavery meant shame, because it meant being unable to demand respect. Philemon has power. Onesimus has none. Read more