November 12, 2020
Today is the one day of the liturgical year that we will hear from Saint Paul’s Letter to Philemon. It is a very brief letter – one chapter, twenty-five verses…so we have nearly the entire letter as part of the first reading for today’s Mass.
Though written specifically to three individuals rather than a community, it has value to us: Paul was centuries ahead of his time in stating the Christian understanding of equality for all.
The following is a review of the text from the USCCB website:
This short letter addressed to three specific individuals was written by Paul during an imprisonment, perhaps in Rome between A.D. 61 and 63. It concerns Onesimus, a slave from Colossae, who had run away from his master, perhaps guilty of theft in the process. Onesimus was converted to Christ by Paul. Paul sends him back to his master with this letter asking that he be welcomed willingly by his old master, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ. Paul uses very strong arguments in his touching appeal on behalf of Onesimus. He suggests he would like to have Onesimus work with him for the gospel.
Paul’s letter deals with an accepted institution of human slavery. However, Paul breathes into this letter the spirit of Christ and of equality within the Christian community. He does not attack slavery directly, for this is something the Christian communities of the first century were in no position to do. Yet Paul, by presenting Onesimus as “brother, beloved…to me, but even more so to you”, voiced an idea revolutionary in that day and destined to break down worldly barriers of division “in the Lord.”