Letters from Prison, XIII: Short Books
If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. —Philemon 1:18
Here’s a list of The World’s Shortest Books. This is an old Internet meme that was ‘trending’ before we knew what ‘trending’ was. The World’s Shortest Books:
Career Opportunities for Art History Majors
The Amish Phone Directory
How to Treat a Lady, by Ray Rice
Things I Won’t Do for Money, by Miley Cyrus
To All the Men I’ve Loved Before, Ellen DeGeneres
Everything Men Know About Women
Everything Women Know About Men
Different Ways to Spell Bob
Subtlety and Decorum, by Donald Trump
And the World’s Number One Shortest Book:
The Book of Virtues, by Bill Clinton
At 335 words, or less than a single page, Paul’s Letter to Philemon is the third shortest book in the Bible, and if you can tell me which two are shorter without looking it up, I’ll let you take me out to lunch.
There are many good things about short books. They are thin and therefore easy to pack for your commute or your flight. They are light so you can read them while you are walking.
And they are efficient. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich might be the most important book of the twentieth century; my version has 159 pages and took me about three hours to read. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a masterpiece; that one will take you about four hours to read.
But there are also some bad things about short books. Short books often leave out a lot of information that might be helpful to understand that short book.
Obese books leave nothing out. If you’ve ever read War and Peace or Les Miserables, or Moby Dick, you know that Tolstoy, Hugo, and Melville never took a red pencil to a single idea they ever thought. With those books you learn way more than you want to learn about Russian artillery or the Paris sewers or how to process a whale carcass while under full sail.
But short books leave out a lot of information. Like Philemon. Reading all of Paul’s letters is like listening to one end of a telephone conversation—you only have half the information you need—and Philemon is especially lean and spare and thus problematic, so you make your best guess as to what’s going on, and here’s my best guess as to what’s going on in Philemon.
Paul tells us in this letter that he is writing it from prison, so along with Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians, Philemon is one of Paul’s four prison letters. He’s probably writing this letter from a Roman prison cell near the end of his life, around 60 or 62 A.D.; he’s probably dictating this letter to his secretary Timothy; and he’s writing to his friend Philemon to convince Philemon to take back a runaway slave named Onesimus.
We don’t know much about Philemon, but we know that he is a faithful Christian, having come to faith under the persuasion of St. Paul himself; and we know that he is probably a member of the Christian Congregation at Colossae, a small town in what is now Turkey; and we know that he is probably rich, because the Church holds its worship services at Philemon’s house; if your house was big enough to hold all of us, it’s probably safe to assume that you are not on food stamps. Philemon is also rich enough to own slaves, or at least one slave.
So Philemon has this slave named Onesimus, who not only runs away from his master but steals some money or property on his way out of town, and now of course he is in big trouble because being a runaway slave in the first-century Roman empire was a serious offense; you’ve seen Spartacus and Gladiator.
The best thing that could happen to you upon recapture is that they would use a hot iron to brand your forehead with a huge ‘F’ for ‘Fugitive,’ and the worst is that they would hang you on a Roman cross like Jesus himself.
So eventually Onesimus has second thoughts about what he’s done and somehow makes his way to Paul’s prison cell in Rome and begs Paul to put in a good word for him with Philemon, Paul’s friend and Onesimus’ master. Paul writes this letter to Philemon and sends it back with Onesimus to his master in the hope that it will protect the slave from the slave-owner’s wrath.
“Take him back,” begs Paul, “and don’t be too hard on him. Welcome him as if you were welcoming me. And oh, by the way, if he has stolen anything, I’m good for it. I’ll pay what he owes.”
So that’s all it is: one Christian asking a second Christian to be kind to a third Christian. Beyond that, there is no ethical teaching in it; there is no theology; there is no ecclesiology; there is no warning against heresy. How did it get in the Bible, and why am I wasting your time with it? Good questions.
In fact, down the centuries of Christendom, many Christians have wondered whether Philemon has done more harm than good to the Christian Church, because in it Paul seems to give his stamp of approval to the institution of slavery, or, at best, Paul eschews a golden opportunity to question the morality of one human being owning another human being.
Before the Civil War, pro-slavery Americans would brandish Philemon as a weapon against abolitionists, because in God’s Holy Word, no less an authority than Paul himself took slavery for granted; Paul didn’t even call slavery a necessary evil.
Americans, in fact, talked about “The Pauline Mandate” for slavery. In other words, Paul was on the side of the slaveholders, rather than the slaves.
In the 1960’s Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and A. Willis Robertson of Virginia were both Democrats in the U. S. Senate. A. Willis Robertson was the father of Pat Robertson, who would soon become the famous tele-evangelist, so of course Pat’s father Willis was a very pious Christian.
One time the liberal Senator McCarthy from Minnesota tried to get the conservative Senator Robertson from Virginia to vote for some modest civil rights bill, and Senator Robertson responded, “I’d sure like to help the colored, Senator McCarthy, but the Bible says I can’t.” Philemon is part of that Mandate.
For hundreds of years in the Roman Empire, and for 300 more in the Americas, slaves were considered to be less than human. They were called ‘living tools’, and when you call human beings ‘living tools’ for hundreds of years, that practice casts a long shadow down the generations and leaves an ugly legacy. Slavery is America’s original sin, and it has been damning us to perdition for 150 years.
Ken Burns has this wonderful new documentary about Jackie Robinson on PBS and it is just shocking what we Americans got used to a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Jackie was born to sharecroppers in Georgia, but moved to Pasadena when he was less than a year old, so he spent his entire elementary, high school, and college years in California.
He was such an accomplished four-sport athlete at his California high school that when it came time for him to choose a college, a wealthy Stanford alumnus wrote Jackie: “Dear Mr. Robinson, I will pay your full tuition for four years at any university in America, as long as it is one that does not compete with Stanford University in any athletic competition.”
Jackie refused the offer and matriculated at UCLA, which definitely competes with Stanford in intercollegiate athletics, and where again he became a four-sport standout.
Anyway, during Jackie’s childhood in Pasadena in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, there was an ongoing controversy about who got to use the Pasadena public swimming pools. African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and Mexican-Americans wanted to use the pool, but White-Americans did not want to share.
They finally reached a compromise. Blacks, Japanese and Mexicans could use the pool on Tuesdays. The city promised white people that the pool would be drained at the end of every Tuesday before white people would use it on Wednesday.
So that’s what happens when you spend 300 years referring to fellow human beings as ‘living tools.’ It takes another 100 or 200 years before you escape the ugly legacy of slavery. And Paul never seized the opportunity to question the morality of slavery. He just took it for granted.
So what is this short, private letter between two friends doing in our Bibles? Is it God’s word for us today? And if so, how? Good questions. I’m glad you asked.
Here are two suggestions about how to turn Philemon into God’s glad good news for you today. Two suggestions: You could be Paul, or you could be Philemon.
Suggestion #1: Put yourself in Paul’s shoes. That is to say, ask yourself, “Who needs a letter of recommendation from me today? Who needs me as an advocate? Whose cause can I champion? Whose well-being do I need to defend?”
I came across a new phrase in my studies this week. You know what Paul is to the runaway slave Onesimus? Paul is an amicus domini. If you took a little Latin in prep school or college, you know that amicus domini means, literally, ‘friend of the master.’ As Philemon’s rabbi, Paul is a friend to the master of Onesimus, so that’s where Onesiumus goes for cover, shelter, and a plea for mercy.
You see the wisdom of this strategy, right? If you are in trouble with your boss, don’t go crawling to him, begging for mercy; he won’t listen to you; run as fast as you can to someone he will listen to; go to his wife, or his best friend, or his daughter, or to HIS boss; find yourself an amicus domini; a friend of the master.
There’s a great story told about Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome, of course, when Jesus was born and one of the wisest leaders who ever lived. One evening Caesar was having dinner in Rome at the home of a Roman aristocrat, a member of the equestrian class. At dinner a slave accidentally broke a crystal goblet, which so enraged Caesar’s host that he seized the slave by the throat and ordered him to be thrown into a pool teeming with man-eating lamprey eels which was standing by for just that purpose.
The man runs over to Caesar and throws his arms around Caesar’s feet and begs only to die some less horrible way. Caesar lifts the man to his feet, orders the eel pool to be filled in with dirt, and every crystal goblet in the house to be smashed to smithereens. Sometimes you really need an amicus domini.
Piper Kerman’s book Orange Is the New Black is about a wealthy, educated, attractive white woman from Westchester County who is sentenced to a year in a federal penitentiary for being a drug mule. A Smith College alumna, no less. Her drug offense was a stupid thing, completely against her character, a mistake she made for love.
She is so embarrassed to have to tell her friends and family about this, but just before sentencing she tells everybody she knows because she needs them to write recommendation letters to the court telling the judge why she deserves a minimal sentence. She is so embarrassed, and she’s worried that people will refuse. But then all her friends and family come through with beautiful letters, telling the court that she is a wonderful person and really just made a single stupid mistake. She weeps as she reads every letter. They are so precious to her.
Who needs a letter of recommendation from you? Maybe not literally. Maybe just a good word flung against a towering pile of negativity.
Here’s a spiritual discipline for you. Try this. I dare you. The next time you are talking to someone you do like, about someone you don’t like, at work or at school or taking a walk or having a cup of coffee, and your conversation partner, the one you do like, starts to say something negative about the person both of you mutually don’t like, tell the person you do like how wrong she is about the person you both don’t like. I’ll bet you can’t do it. Try it anyway. That would be a great spiritual victory—the beginning of the end of gossip as we know it.
So that’s one way Paul’s Letter to Philemon might be God’s word for you today. You could put yourself in Paul’s sandals and ask, “Who needs a letter of recommendation from me right now?” But maybe that doesn’t electrify your spark plugs; maybe that leaves you cold.
Then try this: put yourself in Philemon’s shoes, and ask yourself “Whom do I need to welcome back into my life after substantial estrangement? Who has seriously injured me but now deserves my grace?”
That was my friend Becky Knight’s wonderful reading of Paul’s short letter to his friend Philemon. Jo Forrest was leading a Bible study on Philemon and she invited me to attend one morning, and we were all asking the same question I asked you this morning: What is this letter doing in our Bibles? How is this God’s word for us today? And Becky just said, “Maybe God is asking me, ‘Who is my Onesimus?’”
Maybe the question is “What miserable man or mean maid merits a modest modicum of my marvelous mercy?” The father who ignored you? The husband who betrayed you? The supervisor who fired you? The coach who benched you? The vendor who deceived you? The colleague who stole your client or took credit for your work? The former friends who shut you out of the circle you wanted to be a part of?
One last Letter from Prison and then I’ll be done. Did you get to see Quinn Middleman as Sister Helen Prejean in the opera Dead Man Walking at Northwestern? It was such a wonderful Letter from Prison. Susan Sarandon does a beautiful job of playing Sister Helen in the Hollywood film, but Quinn is better in the Evanston opera.
You know the story, right? Sister Helen Prejean befriends the prisoner Matthew Poncelet, who is on Death Row for a brutal rape and murder. Early in their relationship, Matthew compares himself to Jesus. He’s feeling sorry for himself, as well he might. “They’re going to kill me just like they did with Jesus,” says Matthew. Sister Helen is horrified. “Oh no, Matthew, you’re nothing like Jesus. Jesus died for love. You stood by while two innocent teenagers were shot in cold blood. You’re not at all like Jesus.”
But then, by the end of the story, Sister Helen can find the latent humanity hidden behind Matthew’s brutal surface, and she says to him, “Matthew Poncelet, you’re a child of God.”
And then, if you’ve seen the film, you know that Matthew dies strapped to a cruciform gurney, with his arms outstretched, looking very much like Jesus Christ. “Matthew, you’re a child of God,” she prays.
Martin Luther never questioned why this letter was in our Bibles. He got it on first reading. He says, “Paul pleads for Onesimus before Philemon just as Christ pleads for us before the Father. We have done wrong. We have run away. We are fugitives. But Jesus writes a letter for us pleading for God’s mercy. And it works. It is just enough. And here we are: accepted, forgiven, and free. We are all Christ’s Onesimi.”
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great (New York: Twelve, 2007), p. 179.
A story told by Dio Cassius, quoted by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, in The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), in The Anchor Bible Commentary Series, vol. 34C, p. 23
Piper Kerman, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010), pp. 28-29
Adapted from Martin Luther, “Prologue to the Letter of St. Paul to Philemon,” quoted by Fitzmyer, op. cit., p. 36.