Slaves and Other Brothers

March 2, 2018

57.PHILEMON.1

The apostle Paul’s New Testament letter we recognize as Philemon, carries incredible impact for such a brief correspondence. Its messages are revolutionary and transformational. It is a deeply personal letter. It is all about a slave named Onesimus.

First let’s identify Philemon. He was likely a wealthy man due to slaves within his household. He was non-Jewish and known by Paul. He lived in a city named Colossae and obviously was a very crucial part of the church there since it met in his house.

Now, let’s briefly consider this church. It most probably was planted by a man named Epaphras (Colossians 1:7; 4:12; Philemon 23) and/or by Philemon himself. Either could have heard the gospel during Paul’s ministry stay in Ephesus and then returned home to Colossae to start the church. However it occurred, Philemon became a friend and co-worker of not only Epaphras but of Paul also.

Slavery in Ancient Rome

This brings us back to Onesimus. He was a slave owned by Philemon, thus making him a part of his household and subject to whatever jobs or duties Philemon chose. Slavery in the Roman context was not racially driven. Slaves could be any nationality. Many were losers in border wars in the ever-expanding Roman Empire. Some volunteered enslavement to pay off debt. Others were the product of generational slavery—the offspring of slaves. Numerous unfortunate pathways could take someone to the slave block in Rome. However Onesimus got there—he was there. He had extremely limited rights; was the sole property of and at the complete mercy (or often lack thereof) of his owner. His value lay in whatever he produced for his owner. The hope of buying himself out of slavery (a practice called “manumission”) existed, but only a small percentage of slaves were ever able to do so. Onesimus certainly benefited from having a Christian owner, but still a slave’s life in Rome was a slave’s life—it was not their own.

So Onesimus ran away from home and from Philemon (which was far from legal and put Onesimus in great danger if caught). He ran to Rome and eventually to Philemon’s friend Paul, who was himself imprisoned there. Influenced by Paul, Onesimus became a Christian and a significant aid to Paul (vss. 11-12). This then created a dilemma—what to do with the now-Christian runaway slave of a friend and brother?

Legally Paul could have been complicit in harboring Onesimus. It was a tricky situation. Paul’s answer? Suggest something quite revolutionary!

“ As a Dear Brother”

Paul’s solution to this dilemma on the surface sounds quite simple. He asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave, “but better than a slave, as a dear brother…even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (vs. 15-16). This simple request, however, masked many complexities and certainly challenged Philemon to reconsider relationships in the Lord.

In the Roman context slaves were in no way socially equal to their owners. In no area of life did the barrier between slave and owner not exist. Slaves were property—no more, no less. An owner would never view a slave as his equal; never treat him like a brother. To do so would have been scandalous and no proper Roman would ever consider it for the briefest of moment.

Add to that the fact that Onesimus had cheated Philemon in some manner before he ran away. Perhaps he stole something on his way out or had been slack in performing his job. The specifics are not clear, but Paul recognizes the situation. Certainly Onesimus had briefed him on it.

So stop to consider what Paul is asking of Philemon—to not only receive back this slave who cheated him and ran away from him; but also to receive him back without penalty or punishment AND no longer as a slave but as a brother–an equal! What an incredible request!

On what basis could Paul request such a scandalous action? On something actually more scandalous—the cross of Christ! While not specifically mentioned, it underscores Paul’s reasoning to Philemon. First, it changed and redefined Onesimus just as it had Philemon. Onesimus was now a new man—from slave to free in Jesus; a son and dear brother to Paul and therefore to Philemon. Second, Christ was the very reason Paul and Philemon were friends and co-workers in the faith—now Onesimus shared in this partnership. Third, Paul was willing to pay the ransom (just as Christ had paid for all) for the transgression of Onesimus. “Charge it to me” says Paul (vs. 18). Paul put himself in the role of redeemer and reconciler–at least in regards to the wrong committed by Onesimus against Philemon.

This course of action recommended by Paul undermined all social norms and supported his call for a brand new community—one not bound by earthly constructs but defined by heavenly values. One he described to Philemon and the church that met in his house as:

Here there is no Greek or Jew; circumcised or uncircumcised; barbarian; Scythian; slave or free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11. See also Galatians 3:28)

Now was test time for Philemon. Could he live this out? Would he be courageous enough to put this to practice? Would he run the risk to his reputation and to his household to honor Paul’s revolutionary request? Could he ever see a slave as his equal in Christ?

Will We?

Think about the transformational themes within the brief book:

  • Forgiveness
  • Redemption
  • Reconciliation
  • Equality

These are among the hallmarks of the new community of Christ. This community exists to destroy the harmful, artificial, and oppressive culture of the world and replace it with a community of grace, justice and mercy–a community where all are equally welcome based upon freedom in Christ. Only through Christ can this ever be accomplished.

This still presents quite the challenge to our way of thinking. Christ levels the playing field. The same grace that saves me—saves everyone. I am in no way superior than anyone else. My relationship with others in Christ should trump all accepted social and cultural norms. Being ashamed of your sister or brother (Romans 1:16; Galatians 2:11) is not acceptable. In Christ we are all one—all equal— as slaves and other friends and brothers. That is the revolutionary nature of God’s community to which Philemon and us were called to live out.

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The Servant of the Lord

February 12, 2018

wonder-servant.jpg

From our reading in Isaiah and Mark, it is all about the Servant of the Lord. Here are some selected points of discussion.

  • Who wrote Isaiah 40-66? There is little doubt that the prophet wrote the first 39 chapters, but questions abound about the latter half of the book. It details events that happened 150 years after Isaiah’s death, that is, the return of the remnant of God’s people from exile in Babylon. The judgment of God to Judah in the form of Babylonian conquest and captivity that Isaiah had earlier foretold was over. Chapters 40-66 seems to speak in present tense about the exiles return along with the complications connected to that. Since Isaiah was long gone—how could he have written it? Three main theories exist. One, as a prophet, he simply saw the future via divine intervention and wrote about as if he were present in it. Two, using Isaiah’s own notations in 8:16; 29:10-12 & 30:8-9—he sealed up some of his prophecies, which were passed along among his disciples during the subsequent years—which were then later unsealed and used by disciples/scholars/prophets contemporary to the remnant return. Three, someone other than Isaiah living after the period of exile wrote it, making it another work altogether and not really tied to Isaiah at all. To add to this discussion, an almost complete scroll of Isaiah containing all 66 chapters was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran in 1947. This scroll was one thousand years older than any previous Isaiah manuscript, being dated to 125 BCE. It demonstrated at that point at least, Isaiah was considered one book written by one author. Even more significant, the New Testament seems to have few problems attributing the entire book to Isaiah. (Here is but a small sample–Matthew 8:17; 12:18,21; Luke 2:32; Romans 2:34; 10:20; 2 Corinthians 6:7; 1 Peter 2:22.)
  • Who is the Servant of the Lord? Isaiah introduces us to him in chapter 49 and he becomes central to the narrative. God had not forgotten his promise to his people. Throughout captivity and exile a remnant had remained. They were returning (the time period of Ezra and Nehemiah) to their homeland to renew their calling as God’s people—a light to all nations. But stubbornness among them still remained. They claimed God had ignored and given up on them during captivity. Isaiah countered by insisting that he most definitely had not—that the judgment and exile was all a part of God’s plan for something bigger and better to emerge from the Jewish people to bless all nations. This is embodied in the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, Christ Jesus our Lord. He would be the suffering servant (chapter 53) that would finally accomplish God’s will for his kingdom to be a place for all nations and people. The second half of Isaiah is about hope—hope for all people, for a New Jerusalem and it is only possible because of the Servant of the Lord.
  • Is everything really possible for them who believe? So says Jesus in Mark 9:23. Contextually this flows out of a conversation with the father of a young boy possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus is petitioned to help. The father says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds by stating, “If you can?” and then makes the firm affirmation of the place of faith for believers. So, is this a context specific remark only applicable to that situation or does it have a broader scope? Either evil spirits no longer possess us as they did in Christ’s day or we do not recognize them as such. Is this just a statement by Christ in connection to them? If it goes beyond context, then are we limiting the power of God to work within us due to lack of faith? Other texts (Romans 3:20-21 for example) indicate that God is ready to accomplish within us more than we “ask or imagine.” Could it be that we are not asking or imagining enough?
  • Can anyone “not one of us” serve the Lord faithfully? This was the concern of some of Christ’s disciples as recorded in Mark 9:38-41 (this story occurs only in Mark’s gospel). They witnessed someone not from their group exorcising demons in the name of Jesus and “told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus countered that, explaining that anyone serving in that way was “not against us” but rather “for us.” No other information is provided except in the following discourse Jesus warns about “not causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” This seems to be a direct reference to the man casting out demons and the disciples attempt to stop him. Often we can drift into an exclusive attitude about who can and who cannot effectively and faithfully serve the Lord. If you are one of us—you are in. If you are not among us—you are out. Perhaps this brief story is included in Scripture to cause us to reconsider this kind of thinking and to realize that ultimately God knows who is in and who is not. Obviously, false teachers have existed from the very genesis of the church, but this story reminds us to be careful about making sweeping judgments as to whom God can use in his kingdom.
  • Divorce for “any cause?” Jesus was swept up into a controversial and somewhat convoluted debate over divorce in Mark 10:1-12 (see also Matthew 19:1-12 & Luke 16:18). It centered on different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 among the Pharisees. This OT text deals with a man’s right to divorce his wife because of “finding something indecent about her.” Two schools of rabbinical thought had emerged and been codified by the time of Christ around this phrase. One interpretation saw it as pertaining to any woman who had been sexually unfaithful during the time of engagement. If this was proven, the intended husband could divorce her (Joseph with Mary for instance). This was the minority view. The second had morphed this statement to mean basically anything a man found unfavorable about his wife—from bad cooking to a bad hair day. This approach was the widely accepted norm as divorce for “any cause” (Matthew’s account include this language ). To fortify this view the practice of Moses concerning divorce was also mentioned. Interestingly, Jesus does not really answer the question directly. Instead he attributes the action of Moses as a compromise because of stubborn hearts and harkens all the way back to the original concept of marriage from the beginning—one man for one woman for life. By so doing he effectively does answer their question without engaging in their debate over rabbinical teachings. Can a man divorce his wife for any cause? No, he cannot. Instead he needs to honor the original marriage covenant. Later privately he offers a further explanation to his disciples offering marital unfaithfulness as an exemption to the Genesis account. Notable here is that he includes the possibility of a woman being able to divorce a man—something not allowed under Jewish law at that time—and something that unfortunately would be needed as the gospel extended beyond the Jews. Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 (which predates the book of Mark) concerning the different marriage situations in Corinth. What if an unbelieving spouse leaves the believing spouse? Paul indicates that the believer—be it a man or woman—“is not bound in such circumstances.” No, a divorce cannot be sought for “any cause,” but there are exemptions. Both Jesus and Paul spoke into the complex situations of their context and complex situations continue to exist in our context as well.

 


When Jesus is in the Neighborhood

February 1, 2018

silhouetteThe gospel of Mark was the first written account of the life of Jesus. He starts it this way:

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (1:1)

Using a reference from Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3) he introduces John the Baptist as a new prophet foretelling the coming of the Messiah. From there—as Jesus is baptized by John—Jesus quickly and rightfully takes center stage in Mark’s narrative.

In Galilee

The story unfolds as “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (1:14). The Nazarene starts at home to introduce himself as Messiah and to share the good news of God’s kingdom. He first went into his own neighborhoods teaching and healing. This is the focus of the first eight chapters of Mark.

The reaction Christ received was mixed. Some came to faith. Some opposed him. Many were skeptical. A few from his neighborhood—who knew his family well—completely dismissed him as trying to rise above his station in life. No way the son of Joseph the carpenter could ever be anything more than that.

Reading these chapters offers us a fascinating glimpse into what happened when Jesus went into those neighborhoods to proclaim his purpose and mission. As we observe, it would also serve us well to read ourselves into these texts. Just how would we have responded?

What Happened When Jesus Was in the Neighborhood

  • He demonstrated his power over the created order. Repeatedly in Mark’s narrative, the ability of Jesus to override and alter the created order is presented. From healing the sick, to exorcisms, to raising the dead, to calming the sea, to multiplying food, to even forgiving sins—Jesus did what no other could. Obviously this was an imperative for Christ in order to verify his claims of Messiahship and kingdom. (Later Peter in Acts 2:22 would affirm the essential role of these miracles in this regard.) The miracles gave Jesus a platform from which to speak and serve—and he did!
  • The people were amazed, but the disciples were stupefied. Repeatedly Mark notes how the people responded in amazement—and not just over his miracles, but also in reaction to his teaching. “At this they were completely astonished” is how Mark phrased it on one occasion (5:43). Why wouldn’t they be? They had never seen nor heard anything like this! (2:12) As a result Jesus became a must-see event with crowds flowing from every corner of the neighborhood to see him, hear him, touch him and be healed by him. Perfectly placed in the center of it all were his closest disciples, but instead of being transformed, they appear dumbfounded—not able to absorb the true meaning of the situation. Jesus asked them at one point, “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear?” (8:17-18). As we read ourselves into the text these questions remain crucial.
  • The compassion of God was on full display. Three times (1:4; 6:34; 8:2) Mark notes how the compassion of Christ motivated him to action. It was through the lens of this compassion that Christ viewed his neighborhood. While some stood by debating who was clean or unclean according to tradition, Jesus was “moved by compassion” to actually intercede and change lives. We should never underestimate the depth of God’s compassion and seek to always be instruments of it (Psalm 147:3; Luke 15:20; Ephesians 4:32).
  • The duplicitous nature of Christ’s enemies was revealed. From the start, Jesus posed a threat to some within the neighborhood. Among those who should have immediately and instinctively recognized and embraced him, these teachers of the Law and politicians instead opposed him. They even plotted to kill him (3:6) while trying to discredit him with accusations of collusion with Satan (3:20-30). Jesus knew them perhaps better than they knew themselves. As he confronted them he exposed their hypocrisy and evil agendas. They honored him with their lips, but their hearts were far from him. Ouch. Not a place any of us ever want to be.
  • The significance of simple faith was most evident. From the desperation of the woman with the blood disease (5:34) to his reaction to the Syrophoenician woman’s plea (7:24-30) it was clear that Christ put a high premium on simple faith. “Don’t be afraid, just believe” is how he succinctly stated it before bringing the dead back to life (3:36). Can it really be that simple? Some thought not—adding traditions to commandments until faith became burdensome. Jesus ably cut right thought that red tape—bringing back the rightful place of uncomplicated faith in response to God. Our challenge is to keep it that way—not being afraid to just believe—even when (or especially when) all evidence points otherwise.
  • Expectations need to be reset (8:31-9:1). Even as the excitement of Jesus being in the neighborhood unfolded; even as those healed were celebrating; those fed were satisfied; and those amazed were wondering what was next, Jesus shifted gears. It would not always be this way. He would not always be with them. Difficult days were ahead and tough choices would need to be made. Following him beyond the neighborhood necessitated a willingness to sacrifice. That was the real expectation of discipleship. It would not always be healing and feeding. There would be loss. He himself would die. But it was not to end The Story, only to further it. Anything lost would be more than recovered. No shame in that at all. The kingdom was coming with power—expect it, but also know what that truly meant. That remains a challenge for us to this very day.

“Jesus went around teaching from village to village” (6:6). Imagine him teaching in our village! Actually we do not have to imagine because he is! He remains in our neighborhoods—the same compassionate Savior challenging us to follow him.

Are we?