We can always rely on Saint Paul to throw out a challenge. Imagine poor Philemon being asked to act completely contrary to his culture. A runaway slave faced death or, at the very least, reinstatement with more onerous work; but not acceptance as an equal, as a brother. This isn’t the first time Saint Paul has thrown out a challenge like this. Writing to the Galatians, he said: “there is no more distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”
Philemon’s dilemma is also our dilemma. It’s the dilemma of every Christian. Philemon is asked to receive back into his house and to cherish as a brother, a man whom society considers to be an outcast. Doing so meant that Philemon would have had to fly in the face of society, politics and the economy. That’s exactly the same thing each of us is challenged to do as followers of Christ.
Every age and culture is bound by its own particular and familiar slaveries. And we become near-sighted about the oppressions we have learned to live with. Often our response to the injustices around us is to allow our conscience to become insensitive. But that’s not Our Lord’s way, nor is it Saint Paul’s. Our Lord tells the Pharisees that God’s reign is not ‘out there somewhere’ but within each of us. And we must be willing to work towards freeing our society from the slaveries that keep us from knowing true peace and justice.