Paul, in his letter to Philemon, a person he addresses as a dear brother and co-worker, challenges cultural norms and advocates for social change. Paul shows Philemon, a slave owner, how the social norms and accepted economic practices of the time are really a spiritual issue.
The slavery of Paul’s time was economic slavery. When a person needed a small amount of money, they borrowed from a friend, as a bank did not exist. However, if they required a larger amount, then they became a slave to the person who lends them the money until the debt was paid off. The concept of slavery in the time of the New Testament is not one of “chattel” as was known in the U.S., but it was more like “indentured servants.”
It appears from the text that Onesimus runs away from his master, Philemon, and becomes Paul’s disciple. But now Onesimus is returning home, and Paul pleads with Philemon to accept Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a brother. The law of the time was that you could not enslave a family member, so if Philemon accepts Onesimus as a “brother in Christ,” Philemon has to free the man. To accomplish justice, Paul relates to Philemon in a new way. Paul shifts the paradigm.
During Paul’s time, the world had two different sets of laws. One set for people who are alike and another set for people who were different or aliens. Paul challenges Philemon to look at Onesimus as a “brother,” a family member, and not an alien. Paul invites Philemon to relate to Onesimus on the basis of love for a family member (verse 9), not on the economic system of the world. His challenge is not only that Philemon treats Onesimus well, but he asks Philemon to benefit Paul or to refresh Paul’s heart.
As we advocate for social justice and economic equity, we need to remember that those we advocate for are not “others,” but they are “family.” We advocate for them on the basis of the “love” of a family member. When we advocate for Black Lives Matter, it is not just because it is the right thing to do, but it must be because we love our family members of African origin. When we advocate for the refugee seekers, we must remember that they were our family members years ago seeking a safer, better life. When we advocate for those who are fighting for fair compensation, we must remember that they are our children who are hoping to build a future for themselves. The question ultimately becomes, “Will we do better for our family members?” We are all in this together. In God’s family, there is no outsider.
Let us “do better” (verse 21) than the culture of our time or social norms around us. Let us live out the message of Jesus in our world. Let us “do better” and challenge our world to relate to one another based on love. Let us change our world.