How Can I Ask for This Favor Without Wrenching it from You? (Philemon 8-11)

Paul could demand it.

Paul is “bold enough” to “command” Philemon to grant Paul’s request—whatever that is—because “in Christ” Philemon has a “duty” to obey. Paul could assert his authority, whether that is apostolic (though Paul nowhere uses that title in this letter) or relational (as if “you owe me”). Paul resists asserting his authority.

I suppose one could read his unwillingness to assert that authority as an assertion itself. In other words, it is a kind of back-handed manipulation. When Paul says he does not want to assert his authority, some say, Paul is actually asserting that authority. This puts Philemon in an impossible situation. If he acts contrary to Paul’s wishes, he will find himself outside Paul’s righteous wishes. If he complies, then he submits to that authority…perhaps for the very reason Paul does not want him to do so, that is, because Paul—in so many words—demanded it.

Paul himself is in a difficult position.

What Paul wants is for Philemon to act out of love (agape) rather than prescriptive coercion. He wants Philemon to internalize this decision so that it arises out of a shared love rather than out of a begrudging submission to authority.

In other words,Paul wants Philemon to internalize his acting so  that it is formed by the central story of God in Christ rather than imposed by some external authority. Paul gives Philemon the opportunity to humble himself by loving another in a way that cost himself something rather than to merely comply with an apostolic command.

Paul hopes Philemon will perform the story of Jesus the Messiah in his situation, that is, to have the mind of the Messiah (cf. Philippians 2:5). What I mean is this: just as Jesus, though he shared equal divine status with God as he existed in the form of God, emptied himself in order to take on human form and participate in the human condition. This emptying is kenosis; it is self-giving for the sake of the other at a cost to the giver. That is Christian love (agape).

Will Philemon himself perform that story? Does he believe it that deeply? Will it shape his actions?

Paul lays it on thick. He reminds Philemon of his age (“old man”—probably in his 50s) and of his imprisonment for the sake of Jesus the Messiah. Perhaps this is about “pity” or “wisdom,” but I tend to think it is about relationship. Paul is an “old man” in the faith as well as old chronologically. Paul has status in the community as an elder statesman in the community. This is furthered by his willingness to suffer for the cause of the Messiah; he is a prisoner. What I hear in this message is the encouragement to imitate Paul’s own performance of the story. Paul has lived this story for a long time (“old man”) and he is willing to empty himself for others by suffering imprisonment for the sake of the gospel.

But is this not further manipulation?

There is little doubt Paul intends to persuade, and he uses this rhetorical strategy toward that end. But that is not necessarily manipulation.

Suppose a particular authority figure wanted to encourage a person to act out of their own internal convictions rather than because of imposed authority. They might request the action without mentioning the authority, but the authority would be assumed. To ignore that authority is its subtle imposition. To name the authority and to disavow its application  is to clear the air, acknowledge the “elephant in the room,” and perhaps effectively rid the situation of any subtle imposition.When we want to encourage authentic action, it is better to name the authority relationship and not apply it than to be silent about it. Silence is as much a potential manipulation as naming it. Indeed, I think naming it takes away the imposition.

For example, how might a parent ask his/her child to do something for them but not in  a way that assumes the parent asks out of their authority status? I can imagine that I might say something like, “Son, I don’t want you think that you have to do this because I am your father; I want you to do this because you know it is right. And I will not force you to do it.” My hope is that my son would act out of the principles I have cultivated in his life rather than out of fear of whatever consequences he might imagine I would impose if he did not do what was right.

In the same way, Paul named the “authority” option in order to set it aside as a motive for action, and the best way to call Philemon to act out of love rather than duty was to name it and thereby nullify it. To not name it has a greater subtle manipulative power than naming it.

Paul is clear: he wants Philemon to act out of love. And Philemon will need it because Paul’s request is about Onesimus.

This is the first time Onesimus is named in the letter.

It must have been a tense moment when that name was heard in the reading of this letter to the church in Philemon’s house. Consider who was there—Philemon, Apphia, Archipus, neighbors and friends, and other slaves in Philemon’s household. Onesimus is there, too. Perhaps Tychicus was also there. Perhaps he read the letter to the church (cf. Colossae, Colossians 4:10). This was a communal moment. Everyone’s eyes were on Philemon, then Onesimus, and then back-and-forth!

Whatever the problem between Philemon and Onesimus, the whole community hears Paul’s appeal. I wonder when Onesimus was named whether everyone turned their eyes to him and wondered why Paul is so concerned about Onesimus (presumably—at this point in our study—a runaway slave).

Onesimus, Paul writes, has become a Christian; he has become Paul’s child (teknou). Paul was his father, which is a common image Paul uses for the relationship between himself and his converts (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:11; 1 Timothy 1:2).

How did this happen? We don’t know.

What we do know is Paul is in prison (in my opinion, Ephesus). We might imagine that for whatever reason Onesimus sought out Paul as a mediator between Philemon and himself. It seems unlikely—though, of course, possible—that Paul and Onesimus “happen to meet” in prison (which presumes Onesimus was himself a prisoner). I think it more likely Onesimus knew Paul from his relationship to Philemon and therefore wanted Paul to help him in the situation he found himself. Ultimately, however, we don’t know.

Whatever the case, Paul and Onesimus met, Paul led Onesimus to trust in Jesus the Messiah, and now Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon.

As Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, the situation has been transformed. Absent from Philemon’s house, Onesimus was useless to him but now is useful for both Philemon and Paul. Where value was once lost, it has now been restored. But Onesimus’s value is much greater now than it was previously because Onesimus is now also useful to Paul as well as Philemon.

We still don’t know what the request is. We only know that Paul wants Philemon to accede to it out of love rather than duty, and he wants Philemon to recognize Onesimus is now living in a different story than previously.

Philemon and Onesimus now share the same story; they are both children of God (cf. Philippians 2:15) and both are committed to the story of Jesus the Messiah.

What difference should that make in how Philemon treats Onesimus?

We shall see.




One Response to “How Can I Ask for This Favor Without Wrenching it from You? (Philemon 8-11)”

  1.   Richard Constant Says:

    John Mark as much as I have read I wish you would write more.
    I also know how you are stressed with time management nonetheless I still ask.
    Blessings my friend Rich constant

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