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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading through Philemon

The Address and Thanksgiving ( 1–6 )

It is not Philemon alone who is addressed, but Apphia, perhaps Philemon's wife, Archippus, another member of the household, and the whole “church [that meets] at your house” ( 1–2 ). The thanksgiving ( 4–6 ) notes the renowned love and faith Philemon has always shown the “holy ones,” a reference to his fellow Christians. Paul also names Philemon a “partner” in faith, emphasizing the common life in Christ that they share, which is the basis for the new society that Paul envisions.

The Body of the Letter ( 7–22 )

The varied expressions of Paul's complex relationship with Philemon serve as a model for the new relationships Philemon now has with Onesimus. Their common baptism provides a basis for Philemon and Onesimus (as well as for the whole church) to create an entirely new way of relating to one another and to resolve the tensions between them. In no other Pauline letter is the relationship between the “indicative” or statement of Christian reality (signified by a common baptism) so integrally bound up with the “imperative” implications or exhortations that flow from this reality. From a structural viewpoint, it is impossible to separate the “indicative” from the “imperative” in this letter as we have done in others.

In 1 Corinthians 7, 21–23 , Paul says that slavery or freedom is indifferent in the Christian life. It is not clear in this letter whether Paul appeals to Philemon to manumit Onesimus, that is, free him from slavery. He may expect that the two of them now continue in a good relationship of master and slave. But if Onesimus is a runaway, normal punitive measures against an errant slave (who perhaps also stole from his master, 18–19 ) are prohibited by Paul. Master and slave are fellow Christians. The community context should help them work out a new way of relating to one another as “brothers.” Because of whatever way Onesimus has wronged Philemon, Philemon is in a delicate position. If he does not punish Onesimus, he is lacking in necessary discipline, and his social peers will think him weak. If he does insist on punishment, he will violate his Christian obligation to forgiveness and Paul's express desires. The whole house church is watching to see what he will do! Unfortunately, we do not know the answer.

Paul describes himself as a prisoner (9), as Philemon's brother (7.20), and as father of Onesimus (10). Paul says he is an old man (9), an anticipated guest of Philemon (22), and one to whom Philemon is indebted (19). These descriptions illustrate the various ways in which the patronage system of the culture interacted with Christian expressions of interdependence and ultimately equality in Christ. They are a way of redefining Paul's relationship to Philemon and to the church in Colossae. They also serve as a model for Philemon to develop a new relationship between himself and Onesimus. The letter is a masterpiece of rhetorical strategy. Paul does not mandate any specific set of actions, but rather appeals to Philemon and to the whole community to read and reflect on this letter in light of their common baptism, and to discern a course of action toward Onesimus that will reflect the Christian faith they share.

Conclusion ( 23–25 )

The final greetings mention names of Paul's co‐workers also found in Colossians ( 1, 7; 2, 1; 4, 12–13 ) and 2 Timothy (4, 9–13). Together with the liturgical blessing (Phlm 25 ), these greetings underscore once again the communal context in which this letter was written and in which it ought to be reflected upon and acted upon. Philemon draws out some implications of the baptismal formula quoted in Galatians 3, 28 : “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (see also Col 3, 11 ).

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