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One of the shortest books in the Christian Scriptures is the one with the biggest influence. Paul’s letter to Philemon isn’t long enough to have chapters, yet its message has challenged Christians for almost 2,000 years. The Apostle was faced with a unique problem when he dictated these few lines and mailed them to his old friend Philemon, a problem with which none of us today hopefully will ever have to deal: a runaway slave.

Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had not only escaped from his master’s house after destroying some of his property, but eventually he ran to Paul, expecting the Apostle to protect him. Does Paul keep him or return him? The problem becomes even more complicated when Onesimus converts to Christianity and Paul baptizes him.

Obviously, at that time, our Christian faith had not yet evolved to the point where slavery, as such, would be unconditionally prohibited. And we have to admit it: that wouldn’t happen for about another 18 hundred years! That’s why it’s important to note the principles Paul employs to come to a conclusion. Paul couldn’t just check the latest papal documents or look up some decrees of a council. He didn’t even have a catechism to flip through to find the answer.

It’s clear that he basically agrees with the Wisdom author that our first moral principle is always to do “what Yahweh intends.” But as we hear in today’s reading from the book of wisdom, at times that’s hard to do. “Rarely do we guess the things on earth ...,“ the author reflects, “but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?” So we do not even understand what happens on earth, how should we know what happens in heaven? For our author, certainty in decisions can come only from Yahweh’s holy spirit. Without that force in our daily lives, we have no orientation. And the author of the book of wisdom says: “You send your holy spirit from on high – and thus the paths of those on earth are mad straight.” (Wisdom 9,17f).

Luke’s Jesus (Luke 14,25-33) presumes we must be completely committed to that spirit. Nothing – or no one – can be more important than that commitment, not even life itself. And it’s certainly not something that comes easy. It can take as much planning as building a tower or waging a war. We simply can’t be like Jesus without it. There’s no other way to daily carry our cross.

Perhaps the first principle Paul operates from is the belief of Jesus – and of modern moral theologians that whatever we do, we do freely. Things done from force or fear don’t count toward our eternal salvation. As difficult as it might be to achieve such freedom, the Apostle Paul expects both Philemon and Onesimus to have no force, no violence, or fear in whatever they do. That means the apostle first respectfully asks Philemon to free Onesimus and permit him to help Paul. But on the other hand, Paul also expects Onesimus to freely return to his former owner Philemon and permit himself to again be in the power of Philemon before he asks for his release.

In each case, Philemon could freely say, “No!“ just as Onesimus could freely say, “I’m not going back!” Since this letter is in our biblical canon, we presume both said yes. But there’s no way to definitively prove that. It’s an essential part of carrying our cross that we create situations in which people are free to do the unpredictable. With such a commitment to freedom it was only a matter of time, a matter of a long time before slavery would be condemned by the church. But Paul is also guided by his belief that, once baptized, we each become a new creation.

So according to his theology, Onesimus is just as much a free person as Philemon, and Philemon is just as much a slave as Onesimus. We are all one. Perhaps one of the reasons we are more comfortable in just following rules and regulations instead of making decisions based on Christian principles is that there’s much less personal getting your fingers dirty in following rules and regulations. You always have an excuse. Because someone else already made the decision for us – so we can wash our hands in innocence.

I think Christian decision making always has to do with the wish to follow the spirit of God – by discerning what God would like us to do, by discerning what Jesus would recommend us to do.

Cf. Roger Vermalen Karban

Wolfgang Felber SJ