Love and a runaway slave



St. Paul converted a runaway slave who belonged to one of Paul’s friends.  This put Paul in a delicate situation.  He ended up persuading the slave to go back to his owner, even though the slave might face horrifying punishments.  Which clearly put the slave in a tough situation, too.

And when you think about it, the slave owner was in a delicate situation.  He, too, was a Christian.  He was rich.  His friends and business associates who owned slaves would expect him to punish the runaway severely; the economy and the political system depended on slavery, so to leave the runaway unpunished would risk both prosperity and stability.  Paul tells the slave owner to love the slave and, beyond that, he gives him no further instructions.

Imagine the scene when the runaway slave shows up

The slave’s name is Onesimus.  The slave owner is Philemon.  The New Testament includes the short letter that St. Paul wrote to Philemon.  It has 25 verses and you can read it here at the Catholic bishops’ website.

Now imagine when Philemon first sees Onesimus.  Everything in Philemon’s experience probably tells him that he is the one who has been wronged, that this slave has harmed him and must be punished.  Everything in Onesimus’ experience probably tells him it is crazy to go back, that he may end up in a situation literally worse than death.  So Onesimus shows up and hands Philemon the letter from Paul.

In that letter, Paul only tells Philemon to do one thing.  He does not tell Philemon to set Onesimus free.  Nor does he tell Philemon to send Onesimus back to Paul, even though Paul would very much like for that to happen.  He simply tells Philemon to love Onesimus the way he loves Paul himself, because now that he is a Christian, Onesimus is Philemon’s brother in Christ as well as his slave.

As simple as that.  Paul tells these two Christians that love is more important than physical safety, more important than legal rights, more important than the accepted political and economic opinions of Philemon or his friends and business associates.

This is self-renunciation of the highest order

A few days ago, I wrote about loving what God loves.  The point I wanted to make in that post was that loving what God loves is just about the only way you can give God anything.  And that adopting what God loves as my own is part of what it means to renounce self, the thing Jesus says we must do if we want to follow him and the thing that Lent calls us to.

Now this story about the runaway slave takes what I wrote about a step further.  Loving what God loves is radical – it could even be scary.  Loving what God loves probably will not mesh with culture or politics or economics.

In this situation with the runaway slave, if Philemon loves what God loves (namely his slave Onesimus), then everything, I mean everything, will change in how he treats a runaway slave.  Yes, Onesimus broke the law (Paul knows that; Paul upholds the authority of law; ready the first verses of Romans 13) and yes Philemon has been harmed economically.  Paul doesn’t even deny that Onesimus is property.  But, Paul says the thing to do is to love the runaway as a fellow human, especially since he is now Philemon’s brother in Christ.

If Onesimus loves what God loves (namely if he loves Philemon, a good man whom Paul loves, a man who is good to the church), then Onesimus will trust his owner to “do the Christian thing” and not just knee-jerk react with his legal right or his political and economic interests.  Onesimus will have this trust even though if he is wrong, there will be terrible consequences.

These are huge self-renunciations, full of risk, but oh so full of potential!  Really loving what God loves, not just with words, but also with deeds, is radical.

What this might mean for us today

We must be very careful that what we love is what God loves.  We must be careful not to confuse our own economic interests at a personal level or at a class or national level with what God cares about.  We must be careful not to confuse the interests of our party or class or country with those of God.  We must never allow legal rights or any kind of politics to obscure the humanity of another person or group of persons.

Philemon and Onesimus were called to look beyond personal safety and economics and legal rights. 

They were called to look beyond the accepted culture and social structure of their time.

They were called to love the way God loves.

Love is sometimes dangerous to the status quo.  It trumps everything.

One thought on “Love and a runaway slave

  1. It seems like Christianity promotes a pretty straightforward normative ethic–love. I think that raises two questions for the Christian. First, why love and not something else? One might answer that it’s because loving is the way in which we best imitate God’s character. I think this is a good start, but it still leaves us wondering why God would choose to be loving. Second and more importantly, can we understand love in more basic terms, so that it’s easier to tell whether we are loving or not? Is love just concern for another’s good or self-renunciation? Is ‘love’ a conceptual simple, not analyzable? Robert C. Roberts, considering love as an emotion, characterizes it propositionally as “This person is wonderful because s/he personifies Jesus Christ and is loved by him; may his or her true interests be promoted.”

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