He thinks that Philemon reveals that “something very different, different from the way the rest of the world behaved” was taking place through the early Christians. Wright suggests that this account is not just an example of extraordinary kindness, but rather represents something truly new in the world, something related to the message of Christos that is woven throughout the epistle.
Wright compares Philemon with a letter from a Roman senator named Pliny the Younger. Pliny wrote to a friend named Sabinianus about a freed slave who had angered him and had come to Pliny for help, fearing his former master’s wrath. Pliny, persuaded that the freedman was penitent, gave the refugee a stern lecture and then wrote to Sabinianus on his behalf.
The way Pliny reasoned with his friend reveals the social rules of the day. Pliny is in a power position, Sabinianus in the middle, and the freed slave at the bottom of the social pile. The freed slave needs and seeks out a friend in high places. The senator uses his position and attempts to convince his friend to take the penitent one back. Using a bit of ancient psychology, Pliny assures Sabinianus that he was right to be angry, but reminds him that anger might be counterproductive for his gentle personality. He lets him know that he has scolded and warned the offender and won’t give him another chance if he fails Sabinianus again.
The letter worked, and Sabinianus took the man back. As Wright notes, the freed slave was lucky that he could return and not face serious reprisals. In the end, the social order was restored, and the offender had received a strong enough lesson and warning that he dare not step out of line again. Sabinianus restored him on the basis of his repentance and the promise of better behavior, as well as a measure of self-interest in showing himself properly submissive to a superior.
How does this compare with Paul’s letter to Philemon about a situation regarding one Onesimus?
First of all, Wright notes a striking dissimilarity right at the start: Paul, the author, rather than holding a high position in society like Pliny, is in prison! Yet there is an air of strange authority in his words, as though being a prisoner were a noble calling.
But the main impression, once we study the two letters side by side, is that they breathe a different air. They are a world apart. Indeed — and this is part of the point of beginning the present book at this somewhat unlikely spot — this letter, the shortest of all Paul’s writings that we possess, gives us a clear sharp little window onto a phenomenon that demands a historical explanation, which in turn, as we shall see, demands a theological explanation. It is stretching the point only a little to suggest that, if we had no other first-century evidence for the movement that came to be called Christianity, this letter ought to make us think: Something is going on here. Something is different. People don’t say this sort of thing. This isn’t how the world works. A new way of life is being attempted — by no means entirely discontinuous with what was there already, but looking at things in a new way, trying out a new path.
– p. 6
N.T. Wright suggests that the story behind this letter is likely that which the majority of commentators have surmised: that Onesimus was a slave of Philemon who had run away. Wright thinks Paul was in prison in Ephesus at this time, which makes the slave’s journey from nearby Colossae to see him entirely plausible. There had been some sort of trouble between Onesimus and his master and he came to Paul to appeal for help in the situation.
Paul’s answer takes a much different tack than Pliny the Younger’s did in similar circumstances. Pliny’s counsel was, “The offender has said he’s sorry and you should take him back and give him another chance.” The senator’s intervention in this dispute did nothing to challenge the social conventions, rules, and roles of the day. It simply restored things to the status quo and kept all accepted identities and distinctions in place.
Wright discusses various parts of the letter and shows how Paul likely had certain Exodus themes in his mind as he appealed to Philemon, and how he uses different evocative terms of Christian fellowship to describe his relationships with both Philemon and Onesimus. But the nature of Paul’s appeal is most specifically highlighted in two important passages from the epistle that Wright analyzes.
- Paul’s prayer in v. 6 — Wright renders it: “that the partnership which goes with your faith may have its powerful effect, in realizing every good thing that is [at work] in us [to lead us] into the Messiah.” In particular, he wants us to see the final phrase: “into the Messiah.” Paul is praying that the dynamic gift of fellowship (koinonia) which accompanies Philemon’s faith will have the powerful effect of “bringing about Christos, Messiah-family, in Colossae.” As in Ephesians 4, where Paul envisions the church “growing up into Messiah,” so here he longs for the church in Colossae to know the full unity of life together in Christ.
- Paul’s request in v. 17 — “So, if you count me as your partner, receive him as you would me.” Philemon is not just to welcome Onesimus back as a penitent slave. He is to welcome him on the same level as if it were Paul himself! Furthermore, Paul offers to pay any damages the slave may have incurred: “If he has wronged you or owes you anything, put it down on my account.” Far from acting as a superior ordering an inferior to do something, Paul is willing to become personally, actively, even sacrificially involved to promote reconciliation.
N.T. Wright summarizes:
Here, too, is the most outstanding contrast between Pliny’s worldview and Paul’s. Paul is not only urging and requesting but actually embodying what he elsewhere calls “the ministry of reconciliation.” God was in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself, he says in 2 Corinthians 5:19; now, we dare to say, God was in Paul reconciling Onesimus and Philemon.
…The major difference between Pliny and Paul is that the heart of Paul’s argument is both a gently implicit Jewish story, the story of the exodus which we know from elsewhere to have been central in his thinking, and, still more importantly, the story of the Messiah who came to reconcile humans and God, Jews and gentiles and now slaves and masters. Paul’s worldview, and his theology, have been rethought around this centre. Hence the world of difference.
Pliny was concerned about resolving a problem in a way that maintained social order. Said social order was based on social distinctions and rules of propriety, as well as the rewards and punishments that kept it intact. Second chances were allowed up to a point; kindness and mercy had room to operate within limits. In the end, Pliny remained on top, Sabinianus was beholden to him, and the freedman was on the bottom of the pile.
Paul was concerned about two entirely different matters: reconciliation and unity in the Messiah. Paul was in prison because he advanced this agenda. From there he continued to promote these concerns to people like Philemon, by not only writing about them but also by offering to be the very bridge by which two parties at odds could become one again.
For Paul it was all about Jesus the Messiah, and this is what Jesus was all about.