Tag Archives: doing right

Freedom, for beginners

What can a story from a time when slavery was legal teach us about freedom? Well, perhaps we should read the letter to Philemon!

A slave escaped from his owner, possibly stealing in the process, and headed for the bright lights, and anonymity, of the big city. There, somehow, he met a Christian – Paul. And during, and despite, Paul’s imprisonment, the slave became a Christian, and one Paul valued for his help. There’s a pun (you’d expect me to pick it up!). The slave’s name was Onesimus – ”useful”.

That’s wonderful! We can always celebrate when someone finds faith and new life. But Paul can’t and won’t keep someone else’s slave, even if he belongs to an old friend. So Onesimus must go back, knowing that his master could have him executed for escaping, wondering if he will pause long enough to read this letter before losing his temper.

Paul’s letter really works hard, explaining how the useless runaway has become very useful; offering to repay anything that was taken (but hinting heavily that Philemon really owes Paul everything); making it very clear that he would like Onesimus sent back to help Paul in his work, but saying that he can’t tell Philemon what to do (though his voluntary action would be a credit to him …).

No doubt the first readers knew what happened next – and we don’t. As time went on, the letter might have been lost as irrelevant, dealing only with people long dead. I wonder if it was kept and valued for what is said of Christian freedom? It would be many years before Christians would lead the fight against legalised slavery – a proper and important fight, but not the most important.

Paul is telling us that Onesimus found his freedom with his faith. He would remind us elsewhere that life could be lived (for everybody) as slaves of sin or slaves of righteousness – but that it had to be one or the other, there was no “independence”. We need to hear that. We’ve gone to the opposite extreme, thinking we owe nothing to anybody – which is not true!

But also many Christians today will say “If things were different, I could do more about my faith” –

  • if I was free
  • if I didn’t have such a demanding job
  • if my family responsibilities were less
  • if I had better health, was younger, more talented …

We need to understand that faith makes us free to do what is right: to be a Christian at work, or at home,
or, as a Christian, to change our priorities, lifestyle, and use of time.

Yes, Paul will advise slaves who have the chance, to obtain their freedom, but as something less important than their eternal freedom from the power of evil. Onesimus, travelling back to his master, is already free – so much so that we are not told if he was ever formally relieved of his slave status.

Reality Check (Advent 4a)

The Disnification of Christmas is almost complete.  I don’t want to be rude to the Disney franchise – I like being entertained, but you know what I mean.  The Nativity story has become a fairy story, scrubbed clean, with cute angels, a baby, and all the editing to suggest that it belongs to the world of make-believe to be fed to small children and left behind by grown-ups.  It’s not real, it doesn’t belong in the world of work, politics, adult relationships, or anything serious.

But Matthew insists on telling the story as happening to real people, with difficult decisions and painful moral battles to fight.  His nativity focusses on Joseph, (Matthew 1:18-25), a man with a problem.  He is betrothed to a girl, Mary.  Betrothal is a serious commitment, yet she has become pregnant, and not by him.  We are not told of his feelings – we could imagine a roller coaster of anger, betrayal, doubt, compounded by a story of an angel visiting her.  What we are told is that, despite this upset, he decides to do the “right” thing.  He will divorce her (betrothal was that serious!), but without making a big fuss.

He has just made up his mind when, in a dream, an angel appeared to him.  The angel is no comic figure, nor even a romantic support, but a messenger with instructions.  He is to go ahead with the marriage, and support and protect the child who will be “Saviour”.  Does that make everything all right?  Again, we are not told of his feelings.  He does as he is told.  No doubt he endures many snide comments, unfair allegations about his behaviour.  He may even have been glad to leave Nazareth, though the journey to Bethlehem was a serious challenge.

The gospel writers do not record in detail how Joseph, or even Mary (who carries more disapproval), react to this.  What effect does it have on their relationship?  How do they deal with the burden of unfair criticism, innuendo, exclusion?  We don’t know.  Or rather, we aren’t given a dramatic account of their struggles.  What we do know is here: Joseph was a righteous man (v19), and he did as the angel of the Lord commanded (v24).  Jesus was born, and protected as a child, and learnt love, and faith, and the ways of God from his parents first.  I cannot believe he was brought up by people bitter at their past, untrusting of each other, with a permanent grudge against society.

So perhaps we need to listen the the story Matthew tells with such restraint.  As a story for grown-ups, who struggle with injustice, and being judged, and having a hard time – a story for real people, a little like us.  We may wonder why God doesn’t make life easier for us, but here it seems there was a reason.  Perhaps there will be more reasons when we look back.

Entertainment for the young?  Looked at like this, it seems almost unsuitable.