Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Apostle Paul (Part 2)


When the apostle Paul writes to Philemon, some see a supposed parallel in Roman society. N.T. Wright points out, that over a century prior, the distinguished Pliny the elder writes to a friend named Sabinianus. He makes a plea for a "freedman" who has fled from Sabinianus, a man with whom Sabinianus is angry, one who has done obvious wrong in some capacity and is sorry for it. Pliny counsels Sabinianus to be merciful, but also adds: " ... because I've given him a severe talking-to, and I've warned him clearly that I won't make such a request again (This is because he needed a good fright ...)." A "freedman" is someone who has already gained freedom from slavery but is not a citizen with full rights.

There are two important observations N.T. Wright makes here. First, the literary structure at play is something with which Paul is well familiar, and uses easily. But second, and dynamically, the underlying reality for Paul is the biblical narrative that is radically different than that of the Roman storyline.

Pliny expects the freedman to stay within the social order as it exists, and reinforces it with a strict warning. But Paul radically undermines the Roman social order while not engaging in lawbreaking. First, Onesimus, though a slave, is to be received back by Philemon as much more - he is now a brother in Christ, regardless of what the Roman social order says. Second, Onesimus is to be regarded as Paul's assistant. And third, Paul implicitly but powerfully suggests to Philemon that Onesimus receive his freedom. In Christ, there is a deeper fellowship (koinonia) that transforms social orders for those who grasp its nature. We treat one another - regardless of social standing, race, sex, education etc. - as equals in the sight of Christ Jesus. As members of the Body of Christ, we work together in true unity.

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1 comment:

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