During the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the New Testament letter to Philemon was used by slaveholders and slave traders to justify their wicked practices (Thompson).
Sometime in the middle of the first century, the apostle Paul sent the letter to Philemon, a wealthy Christian slaveholder who hosted a church at his house in Colossae. The occasion for the letter was Paul’s encounter with Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon, found Paul in prison, and become a Christian under Paul’s influence. Paul sent both Onesimus and the letter to Philemon to persuade him to welcome Onesimus generously and not harshly: “welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul writes in verse 17.
The “Traditional” Reading
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those who claimed to be Christians and favored slavery saw in the letter scriptural evidence that Paul did not object to slavery, and thus justification for their continued practice of it. On this “traditional” reading, Paul is concerned that he has been harboring a slave who has done something illegal according to Roman law (running away), and thus Paul is motivated by a legal obligation to send Onesimus back.
If this account is correct, then Paul felt some obligation to uphold the institution of slavery, indicating that he did not see it as wrong. Continue reading →
There is something deeply right and beautiful about the principle, “From each according to her ability, to each according to her need.” To the extent that this principle encapsulates the doctrine of communism, I’m a communist at heart.
I see this sort of economic arrangement in the following passage from the New Testament Book of Acts (2:44-45): “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The picture here is of a community in which people give what they have generously, property is considered communal, and everyone’s needs are met.
Like the rest of the New Testament, the Lord’s Prayer was originally written in Koine Greek (though Jesus likely spoke it in Aramaic). When we read it in English, we are reading a translation. Pope Francis recently argued that scholars should seek a different translation of the line of the Lord’s Prayer traditionally translated, “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4, NIV). (Incidentally, Francis expressed this view in a television interview in which he was not speaking ex cathedra. Thus, faithful Roman Catholics need not interpret his view, here, as infallible.)
Francis’s concern is that the traditional translation is theologically suspect, since it seems to imply that God might actively push us or guide us into a situation where we are likely to sin (a state of “temptation”). According to Francis, as a good father God would not do this. “It’s Satan who leads us into temptation — that’s his department” (Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2017).
For this reason, Francis would prefer a translation that implies a more passive role for God, like “Do not let us enter into temptation,” or “Do not let us fall into temptation.” The implication of these alternative translations is that when we find ourselves in temptation, we have led ourselves there; God has merely allowed us to do so.
My latest post is published on Medium.com. Choice quote:
A while back a more seasoned colleague gave me some networking advice. He recommended that when I am looking for someone to talk to at a networking event, I should not talk to people who are by themselves. Rather, I should seek out people who are already talking in groups of two or three and try to break into one of those groups. Why? Because the “loners” typically aren’t well-connected and generally won’t be useful business contacts. At the time, I remember thinking this was a twisted piece of advice, though I held my tongue.
I’ve been given much. It’s been given to me to hear, understand, and embrace the gospel of Jesus. I’ve been given a wonderful family; dear friends; a healthy church community; opportunities to receive a good education, to work at a solid job, and to write; and a mind and motivations to make good on those opportunities. I bet you’ve been given some similar things.
According to Luke 12:48b, Jesus requires much from people like us: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
I’ve always read this verse as imposing a requirement to produce for Jesus. All the things I’ve been given I should somehow offer back for the purposes of his kingdom and glory. I should use my gifts to further his ends—faithfully loving him, loving my neighbors (be they family, friends, or strangers), serving my church community, providing for my family, and sharing the good news in deed and word.
To be clear, in reading the passage this way I’ve not been snared by a works theology, believing that I must earn my standing before God (this standing, too, is a gift of grace in my view). Rather, I’ve simply believed that Jesus has goals, that following Jesus is in large part about furthering those goals, and that everyone ought to pull their own weight—serving in accordance with their God-given opportunities and abilities. And, I still don’t think this reading of the verse is wrong; it just might be too narrow. Let me explain. Continue reading →
The Apostle Paul at his writing desk, by Rembrandt. Image credit: jesuswalk.com
Lately I’ve begun reading commentaries on some of the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament as part of my research for a novel I’m writing telling the backstory of Philemon. My aim is to understand Paul better—since he’ll be an important character in the novel—and especially his attitude toward slavery, since that is one of the novel’s key themes.
The first commentary I’m reading is James D.G. Dunn’s commentary on Galatians, since it has the earliest version of Paul’s claim, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), which seems important to Paul’s attitude toward slavery. (He makes something like this claim in other places too, e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:13, Colossians 3:11).
I’ve understood for some time that Galatians is one salvo in a theological battle over whether gentile Christians need become Jews (by performing the “works of the law” and, for males, becoming circumcised) or whether their faith in Christ is sufficient for justification before God. (Paul, of course, holds the latter position in the letter.) However, in reading Dunn’s commentary what I’ve been surprised by is whom Paul appears to be tussling with in Galatians. Continue reading →
If I’m perfectly honest, I want glory. I want my gifts to be reflected far and wide. I want my accomplishments to be honored by many people. I want to be known and praised for doing great things.
These desires have a natural and appropriate root. Human beings are social creatures. Part of what that means is that we want to be acknowledged by others, and being honored for good things we’ve done is an important part of that acknowledgement. If I wash the dishes, it is good and right for my family to thank and perhaps even praise me. If my friend accomplishes something extraordinary, it is good and right to celebrate the accomplishment and shine a light on it for others to see.
The trouble is, despite this honest root, my desire for glory tends to bloom in distorted ways. Continue reading →
At the beginning of last school year my daughter made a friend who has had an especially hard childhood. As the year wore on, she learned and told us more of his story. My wife, both of my daughters, and I all began to feel equal measures of compassion for him in his suffering and anger at the injustice he has experienced. Toward the end of the school year and through the summer we began to connect with him regularly as a family and to help him in various ways. As the new school year starts, this process of connecting and helping is only increasing, to the joy of us all.
Recently, he was at our house to help celebrate my daughter’s birthday. He arrived around noon, after the group had eaten breakfast. He had not eaten anything all day. We asked him what he would like to eat, and began getting out some of the copious leftovers to heat up. His response was that we didn’t “have to” do this for him. This is often his response when we try to help him with something. He says this (at least in part) because he doesn’t want to be a burden to us, which is understandable: none of us wants to be a burden. Continue reading →
I’m writing a historical novel that tells the backstory of Paul’s little New Testamentletter to Philemon. The letter is written to a Christian slaveholder in Colossae (Philemon), and it asks the slaveholder to forgive and welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, who has been attending to Paul while he is in prison.
The letter is rarely taught these days, probably owing in part to the difficult questions it raises about slavery. For example, what is a Christian doing owning slaves? And why would Paul blithely encourage Onesimus to return to his bondage rather than keep running? The letter also has the dubious reputation of being used by antebellum American slaveholders and their sympathizers to justify the practice of slavery in the American South. After all, it can seem that by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul implicitly accepts (endorses?) the institution of slavery. These are just a few of the issues I plan to tackle in the novel.
In researching interpretations of Philemon and the institution of slavery in the First-century Roman Empire, I have noticed that part of the contemporary Christian defense of Paul’s actions in Philemon often includes the claim that First-century Roman slavery was generally kinder and gentler than antebellum American slavery. Continue reading →
43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (NRSV)
This passage is, of course, a familiar “difficult saying” of Jesus. However, the podcast reflected on it in a way I had never heard before: suppose the enemy you are to love is yourself. What then? Continue reading →