Paul, Philemon, and One “Illegal”

At 460 words (in the ESV), Philemon is the third shortest book in the entire Bible. Only II John and III John manage a greater economy of words. It’s a small book in which little happens, and, in Bible studies in many congregations, it will seldom even get a full lesson to itself. I’ve found myself returning to this book time and again, however, while trying to decide how God would want me to interact with illegal (read: undocumented) immigrants as well as what my priorities should be if I become aware of someone’s undocumented status.

Illegally Free in Rome

I think the conversion of the word illegal into a noun is among the worst things to happen in the English language. By using illegal as a noun, we allow ourselves to dehumanize those immigrants coming to our country in unapproved ways. They are no longer illegal aliens (a term I’ve never been fond of either), undocumented immigrants, or illegal immigrants. They are simply the illegals. How might Paul have treated Onesimus had he been carrying the attitudes and judgments implicit in that dehumanizing term? After all, we can’t get around the fact that Onesimus was, indeed, an illegal.

In ancient Rome, slaves were not looked upon as citizens in any way. As with the practice of slavery in the Untied States fewer than 200 years ago, slaves in Rome were property. They were soulless objects to be bought and sold as one would do with clothing or produce. Many Romans viewed slaves with a certain amount of fear and distrust. According to Naerebout and Singor in “De Oudheid,” there was a common saying in Rome: “As many enemies as slaves.”

According to Professor Keith Bradley, slaves were often criticized for:

  • Laziness and Loitering – People would complain about them mulling about in public entertainment areas.
  • Being a Threat – Many officials seemed to see unsupervised slaves as a threat to national security. (“They’ll revolt!”)
  • Being Murderers – Some slaves escaped captivity by killing their masters. They were often prime suspects.
  • Theft – If food disappeared from a vendor’s stall, a slave would be the first to receive blame.
  • Vandalism – Slaves were frequently accused of defacing buildings and monuments.

Does any of this sound remotely familiar? Historian Moses Finley recounts that the tracking and capture of fugitive slaves was almost a national obsession. There were professional slave catchers one could hire to track an illegally freed slave. Those who harbored fugitive slaves faced the prospect of punishment. Recaptured slaves were branded on their forehead (F, for fugitivus). Slaves would even have collars to wear, proclaiming promises of reward should the slave be returned to their rightful owner. This was the climate under which Paul encountered Onesimus.

Paul’s Treatment of An “Illegal”

What would you or I have done upon hearing Onesimus’ story? Would we have immediately turned him into authorities? After all, if we had been in Paul’s position (verse 9), we would have had some guards conveniently nearby. Would we have asked for a reward from Philemon? One would have been due. Oddly, Paul takes a different approach, and while he does eventually return Onesimus to Philemon, he does so with more instructions for Philemon than the escaped slave.

Paul begins by reminding Philemon that they are fellow laborers in Christ (verse 1). They are both servants of a greater master. I have little doubt that those words kept coming back to Philemon as he reached the main topic of the letter. In verses 4-7, Paul encourages Philemon spiritually. He is about to address a touchy subject, and he takes time to put Philemon in a spiritual mindset before tackling the issue of Onesimus.

When Paul does come to the subject of Onesimus in verses 8-16, Paul is upfront about the slave’s new spiritual status. Understand this: Paul shared the gospel with and baptized Onesimus before reconciling him with his master. Paul’s priorities center around Onesimus’ spiritual citizenship before addressing the problems of his secular status. In doing so, Paul harbors a fugitive slave, placing himself in danger of greater censuring from those authorities under whom he was already captive. Paul’s primary concern is for Onesimus’ soul. Everything else is secondary.

In verse 13, Paul admits to considering keeping Onesimus with him, but he declines to do so, fearing he would wrong Philemon. I can’t help but wonder, however – had Philemon treated Onesimus cruelly upon their reunion, might Paul have purchased the slave to free him? After all, in verse 18, Paul agrees to pay any debts Onesimus may owe Philemon (leading some to believe that Onesimus had stolen from his master). Yes, Onesimus has to right himself with the laws of the land, but Paul takes care of his soul first. Had he treated Onesimus more like the criminal he was, the escaped slave might have never turned to Christ, might have even fled from Paul and into worse circumstances.

There Is No Jew, No Gentile, No American, No Mexican, No Cuban…

Once freed, a slave became a liberti, second-class citizens that would never be completely free from the stigma of their past station. A freed slave wore a special cap, called a pileus, that served as a symbol of their former lives. Even those who, against all odds, rose in wealth and power were derided as “new money.” They did not come from established families and would never be treated as equals among the Roman noble class. These days, racial heritage plays a similar role to that pileus. You are suspect if you have certain accents, certain skin tones, certain customs. You are “illegal” until proven otherwise. In verses 17-20 of Philemon, Paul admonishes Philemon to treat Onesimus as an equal in Christ, for equality in God’s eyes is more important than inequality in man’s eyes.

Secular conservatism teaches us to deal with undocumented immigrants harshly. Deport them; jail them; put them in internment camps. Some even advocate shooting people they see crossing the border without authorization or those they even suspect of not being true United States citizens. This is not what we see in Paul’s treatment of Onesimus at all. Instead of reacting with our self-assured hammer of justice, perhaps we could show some mercy. Perhaps we could prioritize souls over legal issues (knowing full and well that a soul truly converted to Christ will want to voluntarily set things right). We might help set things right, even going as far as helping them apply for citizenship, helping them learn English, even easing their burden by paying any legal fees or fines involved in their naturalization process. Instead of setting them on a boat back to Central or South America, we might actually take the time to take their hand and guide them to Christ’s footsteps. Isn’t this the essence of bearing one another’s burdens, of going the extra mile, of putting the spiritual before the physical?

Let’s be careful of following the examples set by figures on TV and on the radio who face no accountability in this life for the secular gospel they proclaim. It should not be these influences that shape our hearts and our attitudes toward the tired, the weary, the huddled, the wretched, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, those longing to be free. Instead, our hearts should be shaped by the attitudes we see in Christ and his closest followers. When Paul encountered the “illegal” Onesimus, his main priority was the man’s soul. Rather than viewing undocumented immigrants in the way those pagan Romans viewed slaves – as detritus, as vandals, as thieves, as murderers, as threats to our comfortable society – we should instead see them as souls in need of God’s word and God’s mercy.

For what are we all but strangers and exiles on this Earth, looking for a city where our true citizenship is, whose builder and foundation is God?