A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on September 5, 2010.
Today I want to talk about two outstanding pieces of literature. On the surface, these two literary tracts could not be more different. One was written in the middle of the first century, the other early in the eighteenth century. One was written by an inspired religious genius, the Apostle Paul. The other was written by an Irish literary genius, Jonathan Swift. One is a delicately worded, private letter, probably the most tender writing of the New Testament. The other is a biting piece of satire, probably the most provocative of all Jonathan Swift’s writings. One is a 335 word, rarely read book of scripture named Philemon. The other is a widely read short essay entitled, A Modest Proposal.
And then there’s the difference of content. In case you missed A Modest Proposal in your high school or college literature class, here’s a thumbnail sketch. The early l700s finds Jonathan Swift’s native country of Ireland in economic ruin. Year after year crop failures have led to widespread poverty and hunger. A fortunate few aristocrats dressed in velvet robes and dined on prime rib while most folks wore rags and ate garbage. Hordes of starving beggars, including thousands of women and children, walked the streets of Dublin each day. For a few wealthy landlords and corrupt politicians, eighteenth century Ireland was heaven. But for most Irish folk it was hell on earth.
Occasionally, well-sounding political pamphlets were written by hypocritical government officials that supposedly addressed the social ills of the people. But the pamphlets contained little of substance, and weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Enter the picture an enraged Jonathan Swift who not only saw the suffering of his fellow Irishmen, but saw through the feigned concern of the fat and happy bureaucrats. So Swift decided to write a pamphlet, offer a “modest proposal” of his own, and have a little fun in the process.
Swift had the perfect solution, he said, for what ailed Ireland. His solution would eliminate starvation and over-population, stabilize the Irish economy, and improve the already sumptuous fare of the ruling landlords. He even offered an impressive supply of statistics to back up his claims. His solution? Poor Irish families should sell their children to the rich who could cook and consume them as food. Without even cracking a smile, Swift reasons through all the implications of his proposal to the very end of his essay.
As you can imagine, Swift’s “modest” proposal stirred up a hornet’s nest of reaction. Those who took Swift seriously branded him as everything from a savage cannibal to an insane maniac. Others picked up on the irony of Swift’s “modest” proposal, and recognized that his only goal was to ridicule all the “serious” proposals of the do-nothing politicians , who only pretended to care about the hungry.
So what could this biting piece of satire possibly have in common with Paul’s tender letter to Philemon? Philemon was a wealthy businessman of Colossae who came to Christ through the witness of Paul. Philemon was not just another Colossian Christian—he actually hosted the Colossian church in his home.
Like many well-to-do people of his day, Philemon owned slaves, one of whom was named Onesimus (meaning “useful” in the Greek). And like a fair number of slaves in his day, Onesimus proved to be useless when he ran away from his master. Adding insult to injury, Onesimus evidently stole money from Philemon before flying the coop.
How Onesimus connected with Paul in a prison in Rome we do not know. Maybe Onesimus was present in years gone by when his master Philemon met Paul, and he decided that Paul was a man worth getting to know. At any rate, we do know that Onesimus spent time with Paul, became a Christian through Paul’s witness, and in time became like a son to Paul.
By the way, one fact often overlooked in this often overlooked story is the skill of Paul in leading people to Christ. It didn’t matter if you were at the top of the food chain like Philemon or at the bottom like Onesimus. If you spent much time with Paul, you were in danger of becoming a Christian!
So ironically, Paul led both Philemon and Onesimus to Christ. And all was well, except for one tiny fly in the ointment. Onesimus was still a runaway slave. Legally, Onesimus was still the property of another man–not just any man, but a good friend of Paul’s. What to do? Well, some 1700 years before Jonathan Swift, Paul decided to put forward a modest proposal of his own.
In short, Paul asked Philemon to forgive Onesimus and take him back, not just as a slave, but as a beloved brother in Christ.Paul even offered to repay what Onesimus stole. “Accept my proposal,” Paul says in effect to Philemon, “and you will refresh my heart.”
Of course, like Jonathan Swift’s proposal, Paul’s proposal to Philemon was anything but modest. And like Swift’s pamphlet, Paul’s letter appears to be one thing, but is actually quite another. It appears to be a tender letter asking a favor of a friend. But in fact, it contains spiritual and political dynamite that could blow Philemon, the church, the Roman Empire and even us out of the water.
Now we have to admit that like Jonathan Swift, the Apostle Paul took a great risk in offering his proposal. Swift stood to lose his reputation as a gentleman and a scholar. For Paul, the risk was even greater. Paul stood to lose his friendship to Philemon, not to mention the life of Onesimus.
Paul understood well the position of slaves in the Roman Empire. He knew that Philemon had the power of life and death over Onesimus. Paul understood that runaway slaves could be branded with a red-hot iron on their forehead with the letter F–standing for Fugitivus, which means runaway. And he also knew that runaways were often put to death by crucifixion.
No wonder Paul was so tactful and careful as he explained to his friend why he had harbored his runaway slave. As he made his proposal, Paul knew he risked greatly offending Philemon .
The risk was evidently worth taking for Paul, for one very simple reason—he was hoping to reconcile a broken relationship. So a master and his runaway slave were on bad terms with each other. What’s the big deal? For Paul, it was always a big deal when two people, in this case, two new Christians, two of his brothers in Christ, were at odds with each other. Why? Because Christ’s body is always weakened when even one single relationship is broken, and it is always strengthened when that broken relationship is restored.
In II Corinthians 5, Paul writes that every person made new in Christ is automatically called to a ministry of reconciliation, drawing together God and his people, and drawing God’s people closer one to another. It goes without saying that a Christian ought to make peace with an offended brother or sister if possible, even if that brother or sister is in the wrong. And it goes without saying that we ought to help fellow Christians in conflict be at peace with each other.
During the darkest hour of the early 20th century war between the Armenians and Turks, a young Armenian woman and her soldier brother were captured. Her brother was killed by a Turkish soldier and then the soldier sexually assaulted her. The young woman eventually escaped and became a nurse in the Armenian army and was assigned to care for wounded Turkish soldiers.
One day the Turkish soldier who had killed her brother and assaulted her was brought to the hospital. The soldier was injured severely and was at the point of death. The young woman looked at the soldier and realized that with the slightest neglect she could let him die and even the score. But she didn’t. She nursed him back to health.
When he was stronger, he asked, “You know who I am, don’t you?”
“Why then have you done this for me when you could have let me die?” Very quietly, she replied, “It is because I have a religion that teaches me to forgive my enemies.”
Forgiving people who have wronged you is no modest proposal. Far from it. But it is a Christian proposal. Some of you sitting here today need to forgive somebody who hurt you. That may not be easy. But it is possible, for two reasons.
First, two people who are right with God are called to be right with each other. A common confession of Christ has the power to overcome those things that divide us. There’s no better proof you are right with God than being right with God’s children.
Second, we can forgive others because God in Christ forgave us. Paul says to Philemon, If (Onesimus) has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. What’s interesting is Christ did the same thing for you and me. As he’s hanging on the cross, Jesus says in effect, “If they have done you any wrong, or they owe you anything, Lord, charge it to me.”
How can we refuse to forgive in view of the cross? Forgiving someone who hurt you may not be easy, and it often takes time. But in Paul’s words, it will be refreshing, not only for you and your reconciled brother or sister, but for the entire Body of Christ.
There’s one last very immodest proposal in this modest little letter we dare not overlook. Modern critics of Paul have wondered aloud why he asked Philemon to take Onesimus back as a slave when he just as easily could have stood on his authority as an apostle and shown his opposition to the terrible institution of slavery by demanding that Philemon free Onesimus. This criticism sounds valid until you notice that Paul urges Philemon to take Onesimus back forever no longer as a slave but better than a slave, as a dear brother. Onesimus is very dear to me, but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
Perceptive readers of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal understand that without ever calling for a social/political revolution, Swift laid the foundation for one. And perceptive readers of Philemon understand that Paul did the very same thing. No, Paul didn’t urge slaves to rise up and rebel against their masters. On the contrary, Paul sent Onesimus back to his master. But Paul did something even more radical. He urged a slave owner to treat a slave–a non-person in the eyes of Rome–as a beloved brother in the flesh and in Christ. Why? Because when you treat somebody as a brother, you can no longer treat him as a slave.
Two thousand years later, we still need to hear this modest proposal from Paul, because people are still being treated as things rather than persons all around our world. Every time a person of color is deliberately overlooked for a job, every time an employee is treated like a commodity, every time a woman is treated like a plaything by a man, every time a citizen is manipulated by government officials, people are being treated like things. “Refresh my heart,” says Paul. “Don’t treat people like Onesimus as things. Receive these folk as children of God, as people for whom Christ died. Because they are.”
How did Philemon respond to this letter delivered by Onesimus? We don’t know. For that matter, how did this private letter find its way into the canon of the New Testament? We’re not sure.
One thing we do know is that in 110 A.D. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch was arrested and taken to Rome. From prison he wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus. In this letter Ignatius praised the bishop of Ephesus and encouraged the Christian believers there to imitate him, because he was “a man whose love is beyond words.”
The bishop’s name was Onesimus. Was it the same Onesimus? We can’t be sure, but many New Testament scholars think so.
From a slave of Philemon to a bishop of a Christian church. That’s no modest change. That’s a major transformation. And that’s what the revolutionary gospel of Christ can do!