A sermon for Labor Day weekend.
Dear friends in Christ:
Our second reading today, from the book of Philemon, is a letter from Paul designed to repair the relationship between two men—Philemon and Onesimus. Since their relationship was a work relationship, and because this is Labor Day weekend, I thought it would be good for us to do some reflecting on how the lessons of this text apply to our life in the world of work. We know that relationships often get strained in employment situations. And we know that God calls us to be workers also in our community, family and church family. Lessons that can help us sort out the concerns we have as we work are helpful for all of us. May God bless our understanding and application as we consider His Word for us today.
Paul’s letter is addressed to Philemon. Philemon is both a Christian and a man who seems to have achieved worldly success. He has a home that is able to serve as a meeting place for a church. He appears to be the head of a Roman-styled household, with Apphia most likely being his wife and Archippus perhaps being a brother or a son. Paul seems to have a high regard for Philemon. He is very gracious to him in his letter, mentioning his love and appreciation for both Philemon’s character and his excellent work.
The subject of Paul’s letter to Philemon concerns another member of the household—Onesimus. Yes, Onesimus is a member of the household too, but probably not as family. If we take Paul’s words here literally, and I think we should, then Onesimus is a slave. He is Philemon’s subordinate. He works for him, and not just as an employee but one who is literally owned by his master.
In the days of Paul, approximately one-third of all people living within the Roman Empire were slaves. Slavery in those days was different in certain ways than the slavery of the Israelites in ancient Egypt or the slavery of our American history. That’s why our English translations will often say “bondservant” instead of “slave,” and why Paul will often call himself a “slave of Christ,” yet we translate it “servant.”
Slavery in the Roman world was not primarily defined by ethnic differences. Rather it was a socio-economic status. Slaves were those who couldn’t pay their debt, or who committed crimes, or who were captured in battle, or who were the children of slaves, or who took upon themselves that status because they thought it was their best option. Some slaves were educated and highly valued. Some slaves could earn wages and enter into contracts. For some it could be a pathway to Roman citizenship.
We don’t know for sure why Onesimus left Philemon’s household. Nor do we know for sure why he is now going back to his master. What we do know is that Paul wishes for Philemon to not only accept him back but to do so as a Christian brother. He wants the primary relationship the two men have to be their full equality in Christ, not their differing status as master and slave.
In our society today, thankfully, we do not have master-slave relationships. We do, however, have other relationships in which one is superior and the other subordinate. These relationships, such as those between employee and boss, parent and child, officer of the law and citizen, can have many points of tension and hurt. The Christian faith brings important teachings to bear on these relationships.
For example, because Christianity extolls the value of hard work and service toward others, we help both superior and subordinate workers to value one another. Bosses are told to treat their employees fairly. They are to battle against the temptations to abuse their power or look down upon their subordinates. Their employees are to be valuable to them as people, not just workers. And while certain boundaries and distinctions can be healthy, a climate where their common bond as people created and loved by God is to prevail.
Likewise, workers are also to respect those in authority over them. They are to do their work honestly and faithfully, even if it seems at times as if their work is beneath them. Workers must battle temptation too—especially the temptation to resent the authority and higher compensation of their superiors.
In the case of Philemon and Onesimus, Onesimus may have fled his master because he resented the position he was in. Or, perhaps Onesimus stole something from him—Paul has that line in his letter about “if he has wronged you or owes you anything.” On the other hand, it could have been that Philemon wanted to get rid of Onesimus. Paul mentions that Philemon had formerly thought of him as “useless.” Whatever the case, Onesimus has now come to Paul in Rome and sought help from him. Paul helps him by writing his friend Philemon and appealing to his obligations as a Christian to be reconciled with his fellow believer.
Speaking of that word “useless” – the word here is a play on Onesimus’ name, which means “useful.” Paul tells Philemon in his letter that Onesimus is indeed useful to both of them. Here we have another important teaching of the Christian faith which impacts our work lives.
Work that is done for the benefit of others always has value. Perhaps Philemon did not value Onesimus’ work like he should have. Perhaps he was too focused on Onesimus’ weaknesses and not his strengths. Or, perhaps Onesimus was doing a poor job. Perhaps he was so disillusioned by his place in life that he wasn’t putting forth a proper effort, or so resentful of his master that he couldn’t see the value of helping maintain this man’s household.
In his letter, Paul reminds Philemon about the value of Onesimus’ work. He’s useful. Paul shares how he would be glad to keep Onesimus with him. Paul appreciates his skills, and more importantly his heart.
Though it’s not stated in the letter, I’m sure Paul also spoke with Onesimus about the value of his work too. Work done for the benefit of others always has value. Christians serve one another, believing that God will provide for us as others, too, catch the vision of faith and extend themselves in service to us. The Christian faith moves us from being exclusively protective of our own interests to a place where we care for the interests of all.
Yes, I realize there are some people who will take advantage of our hard work. I know there are plenty of people who are not interested in sharing. But we are not to give in to this way of living, for God judges it. Those who live life focused on themselves without caring for their neighbor will be condemned.
Yes, work that is done for the benefit of others always has value. Sometimes we see that value clearly—like when the hard work of parenting bears fruit in the life of a child who grows to maturity. And, sometimes we see the value when someone else points it out to us. Notice what Paul said to Philemon in his letter: “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” Paul recognized Philemon’s good work and celebrated it for the great gift it was.
Other times we may not see the value of our work so clearly, like when our hard work enriches those who do evil, or when it further enriches those who don’t need to be enriched any more. Still, even in these cases, we can be sure that our positive example is having some good effect. We can still take pride in our work and trust that God will bless it. Using the language of our Gospel reading, we can know that we are the salt of the earth, serving to preserve it. In fact, our Christian example might be the source of good that leads to meaningful change someday.
Think about the meaningful changes that have taken place in the world of work because of the impact of faith. Although the Bible lacks the clear messages of outright condemnation of slavery in its texts that we wish it had, focusing more on encouraging people to be content, there is still ample material in the scriptures for us to know that any unjust bondage of others is forbidden. The movements to end slavery in most nations were spearheaded by Christians who knew that it was right to end this abhorrent practice. Likewise, movements to end child labor practices and establish laws about reasonable work hours and acceptable pay were championed by people of faith who believed in the just and fair treatment of all.
Good people of faith can and often will disagree about the particulars of work arrangements in a country. The Bible does not set minimum wage standards or define collective bargaining agreements. But it does push us to show regard for the faithful worker when it says: “the worker deserves his wages.” It lifts up the importance of rest in its teaching about the Sabbath. And it also pushes us to share with others when it says: “do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
The Book of Philemon can be confusing because we don’t know the exact details of the situation involving Philemon and Onesimus. But the book is still very helpful because it clearly serves to encourage reconciliation between people and an appreciation of one another’s work.
In that regard, Philemon mirrors the message of the entire body of scriptures, which seek to promote reconciliation and appreciation of others as well. These messages are rooted in the love God has for us and the work he has done for us. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to reconcile the world to himself. As it says in Colossians 1: “For in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
This reconciliation between God and man then moves us to be reconciled with one another. As Ephesians 2 says regarding the division between Jew and Gentile: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross.”
God shows us the way to be reconciled to one another. And God moves us to appreciate one another as we hear of the value each of us has in His eyes.
A couple of weeks ago one of you who is very involved in the work of the church here at St. Paul’s said to me: “It is so refreshing to work on projects with people at church. Everyone is so much nicer than they are at my workplace.” I reminded her that we at the church can have disputes and hard feelings too. She knows this. But still, the contrast was very apparent to her, and I’ve heard many others remark about this same contrast as well.
The messages of the Holy Scriptures make a deep impact on a community. They impacted the church which met in Philemon’s home. They impact our churches today as well. The scriptures bring us Jesus, who in turn brings the power of reconciliation and appreciation for others.
Paul began his letter to Philemon by calling him “our beloved fellow worker.” Philemon was working both at his job and in the church. Paul was working even while he was in prison. The work that we do will not always be easy—especially the work that involves proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. There is a cost to that work, as our Gospel reading today so bluntly pointed out. Yet God has promised to be with us and bless our efforts. And while we work, He will refresh our hearts in Christ. Amen.