Week of Proper 27: Thursday, Year 2   7 comments

Above:  Onesimus

Paying It Forward

NOVEMBER 10, 2022


Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.


Philemon 1-25 (Revised English Bible):

From Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and our colleague Timothy, to Philemon our dear friend and fellow-worker, together with Apphia our sister, and Achippus our comrade-in-arms, and the church that meets at your house.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God always when I mention you in my prayers, for I hear of your love and faith towards the Lord Jesus and for all God’s people.  My prayer is that the faith you hold in common with us may deepen your understanding of all the blessings which belong to us as we are brought closer to Christ.  Your love has brought me much joy and encouragement; through you God’s people have been much refreshed.

Accordingly, although in Christ I might feel free to dictate  where your duty lies, yet, because of that same love, I would rather appeal to you.  Ambassador as I am of Christ Jesus, and now his prisoner, I, Paul, appeal to you about my child, whose father I have become in this prison.  I mean Onesimus, once so useless to you, but now useful indeed, both to you and to me.  In sending him back to you I am sending my heart.  I should have liked to keep him with me, to look after me on your behalf, here in prison for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that your kindness might be a matter not of compulsion, but of your own free will.  Perhaps this is why you lost him for a time to receive him back for good–no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave:  as a dear brother, very dear to me, and still dearer to you, both as a man and as a Christian.

If, then, you think of me as your partner in the faith, welcome him as you would welcome me.  If he did you any wrong and owes you anything, put it down to my account.  Here is my signature:  Paul.  I will repay you–not to mention that you owe me your very self.  Yes, brother, I am asking this favour of you as a fellow-Christian; set my mind at rest.

I write to you confident that you will meet my wishes; I know that you will in fact do more than I ask.  And one last thing:  have a room ready for me, for I hope through the prayers of you all to be restored to you.

Epaphras, a captive of Christ Jesus like myself, sends you greetings.  So do my fellow-workers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit!

Psalm 146 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):


Praise the LORD, O my soul!

I will praise the LORD as long as I live;

I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

2 Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth,

for there is not help in them.

When they breathe their last, they return to earth,

and in that day their thoughts perish.

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!

whose hope is in the LORD their God;

Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them;

who keeps his promise for ever.

Who gives justice to those who are oppressed,

and food to those who hunger.

The LORD sets the prisoner free;

the LORD opens the eyes of the blind;

the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down.

8 The LORD loves the righteous;

the LORD cares for the stranger;

he sustains the orphan and the widow,

but frustrates the way of the wicked!

The LORD shall reign for ever,

your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.


Luke 17:20-25 (Revised English Bible):

The Pharisees asked Jesus,

When will the kingdom of God come?

He answered,

You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes.  You cannot say, “Look, here it is,” or “There it is!”  For the kingdom of God is among you!

He said to the disciples,

The time will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man and will not see it.  They will say to you, “Look! There!” and “Look! Here!”  Do not go running off in pursuit.  For like a lightning-flash, that lights up the earth from end to end, will the Son of Man be in his day.  But first he must endure suffering and be rejected by this generation.


The Collect:

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Some Related Posts:

Week of Proper 27:  Thursday, Year 1:


The Feast of Saint Onesimus, Bishop and Martyr (February 11):



May we, in our consideration of the Letter to Philemon, turn off the proverbial tapes running inside our heads.  Rather, may we take our cues from the text itself; it is our primary source.  As a person trained in historical methods, reading one’s primary sources closely and accurately matters to me greatly.  And, as we engage in this close (and hopefully accurate) reading, may we recall that we are reading just one side of an ancient correspondence.  Paul did not mention certain details because Philemon already knew what they were.  I suspect that the Apostle did not imagine that people would read this letter in translation nearly two thousand years later.  If he had thought otherwise, he might have added more details.

So, what can we know, according to the text?  We can know the following:

  1. Paul wrote from prison, distant from where Philemon lived.
  2. Philemon, Paul’s friend, hosted a congregation in his home.
  3. Onesimus, who owed Philemon a debt, had spent an undefined period of time with Paul, to the Apostle’s delight.
  4. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter, in which he (Paul) offered to pay the debt and asked Philemon to take Onesimus back “as a brother.”

Widely accepted assumptions include that Onesimus was a slave–and a fugitive who had stolen from Philemon.  I thought that until earlier today, when I poured over commentaries, most of which reflected the received wisdom.  But what if the received wisdom is wrong?  Professor Allan Callahan, writing in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 2003), argues that the text does not support the received wisdom.  He points to verse 16, which, in English translation, asks Philemon to received Onesimus

…no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother….

Callahan points out the following:

Just as Paul says that the Galatians are no longer slaves but sons in the family of God (Gal. 4:7), so also Paul insists here that Onesimus be received as though he were no longer as a slave but a brother in Philemon’s family of faith; as has the force of “as if” or “as though.”

So Onesimus might not have been a slave.  If this is true, almost two thousand years of Christian interpretation of this epistle has been mostly wrong.  If so, so be it.  Tradition can be mistaken.

Tradition can also be correct.  We read in the hagiographies that both Philemon and Onesimus became bishops and martyrs.  The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople lists Onesimus as Bishop of Byzantium from 54 to 68 C.E., and therefore a predecessor of the current Ecumenical Patriarch.

This is a story about redemption and the good for many that flows from it.  Paul redeemed Onesimus, through whom many people found faith in Jesus.  Paul, in turn, was able to do this because of a direct action by God.  So, when God acts in our lives, may we embrace the responsibility, to help others directly, to pay it forward, and so to aid still others indirectly.



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