Sermon for 14 Pentecost Yr C, 5/09/2004
Based on Philemon 1:10-21
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
Compassion, hospitality, and wisdom. Our passage from Philemon gives us a picture of Christian compassion, hospitality and wisdom. There once was a motto printed on a poster which read: “It is better to give someone a piece of your heart than a piece of your mind.” That is exactly what the apostle Paul is doing in this particular letter—although we also discover his reasoning powers and abilities here too.
Onesimus was a run-away slave who belonged to Philemon. Somehow Onesimus had met up with Paul and, under his influence, had become a Christian. Paul had taken him under his wing so-to-speak and had regarded him as his son. The tone and tenor of Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of deep compassion, as well as hospitality and wisdom. Paul was one of those gifted individuals who were blessed with the gifts of compassion, as well as wisdom and hospitality. In this particular letter Paul is at his best—as he makes his plea to Philemon, who also was a Christian, due in part at least to Paul.
Paul, in this letter of appeal uses considerable diplomacy and tact to state his case. He appeals to Philemon not so much as a master and slaveowner as a brother in Christ. He asks Philemon to treat Onesimus as he would Paul himself. In other words, he is asking Philemon not to use force and punishment—but compassion, hospitality, and wisdom.
At that time such an appeal was very risky. According to Roman law, runaway slaves were subject to severe penalty—their legs or arms were often burnt with hot iron; another punishment was to brand their foreheads; in some cases, the slave might even be killed by crucifixion. Paul, in one way, obeys Roman law by returning Onesimus back to Philemon—but, in another respect, he was taking a risk and even subverting Roman law by appealing to Philemon to give Onesimus another chance; to forgive him; to love him as an equal; as a brother in Christ.
Piece of heart, not piece of mind; tact and diplomacy not rigid rules; compassion, hospitality and wisdom; not force go a long way as we learn from the following story.
One of the chief problems faced by the British during their occupation of India during Queen Victoria’s days were the fierce tribespeople of the Garo Hills. They were cruel, dangerous headhunters, and the British decided that for their own safety they should send a strong military force into the hills and wipe out these people, destroying their villages and making the area uninhabitable. When a group of missionaries learned of the plan, they pleaded with the authorities, “Let us try first to solve the problem.” Their plea was heard, and courageous missionaries fanned out into the area. Today the hills are dotted with churches, schools, and hospitals—a safe place for anyone. The message of compassion, hospitality, and wisdom accomplished peacefully what guns and bloodshed could never have assured. 1
Compassion, hospitality, and wisdom from Paul’s perspective also consists of another important ingredient—namely, that of equality or oneness in Christ. Over the centuries, many have criticized Paul in this letter to Philemon for not advocating the complete abolition of slavery. Yet, even though Paul did not explicitly, openly oppose the institution of slavery—he clearly appeals to Philemon to regard Onesimus “no longer as a slave but…a beloved brother…in the Lord.”
According to Paul, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of class, race, sex or age. A Christian slave was really not a slave; a Christian master was really not a master—Christ loves each one equally and admonishes slave and master alike to treat each other in the same manner as they would Christ himself.
Tradition has it that Philemon did indeed listen to Paul’s appeal and accept Onesimus as his brother in Christ. According to an early letter written by Ignatius who was a Christian martyr; Onesimus is referred to as the bishop at Ephesus.
The following story, is one person’s view of what might have happened:
Onesimus woke from a troubled sleep with a start: Had there been a soft noise, a warning of someone stealthily gliding toward him in the darkness? He held his breath to listen: a soft scrabbling sound, and then a few, high-pitched whistling noises. A rat! He sighed in relief.
Even with the letter from Paul in his hand, he was nervous. An escaped slave, returning, and within a day’s journey from his master—how ironic it would be to be caught now, jailed for removing his slave collar, perhaps sold to the galleys, to perish at the great oars! It could happen. It had happened to others. His only hope was to gain his master’s courtyard before he was found and turned in. Another scuffling sound, and a twitter from the rooftop above him: Some sleeper had turned over in his dreams, and a sparrow was protesting the disturbance. Onesimus shambled to his feet, arched his back and attempted to stretch the early morning fog from his muscles. In the east, the sky had lightened just a shade or two, but it was enough to convince him to move on.
It was late afternoon when Onesimus reached his master’s gates. He was surprised to see his master himself at the gate, and hesitated a moment to gather his courage. Then he sprinted up to his master and prostrated himself, holding up the parchment with Paul’s seal on it for his master to see, hoping to spare himself some blows before his appeal was read. To his surprise, not a harsh word was spoken, as the man broke the seal and read the short letter. A few short bursts of ironic laughter broke the murmured reading, and then his master touched his head. “It seems you have a powerful patron against my anger, my boy,” the master said. “Paul has called in the favours I owe him. Well, get up, come in and eat, and we will talk over your future service in this house.” Tears in his eyes, the runaway slave followed Philemon into the house, grateful for the Christian faith which had transformed them both. He had reason, now, to trust the future! Praise to the Lord Jesus Christ! 2
May this letter of Paul also, like it did Philemon, inspire us so that we might offer compassion, hospitality and wisdom to others, and regard each other as equals in Christ family. Amen.
1 Cited from: Albert Stauderman, Let Me Illustrate (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), p. 28.
2 Cited from: A story by Rev. Sandra Herrmann in, Emphasis, Vol. 25, No. 3, September-October 1995, (Lima: CSS Publishing Co.), p. 23.