Last Sunday, Philemon, the shortest book of the Bible, made it’s regular appearance in the Lectionary. This short letter has a dark history as it was historically used by slave holding Christians in the American South as evidence of God’s support for slavery. In this letter, they argued, Paul sent Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to Philemon, his owner. I doubt that any of us reading this letter today would hear this message. We would likely see Paul advocating to Philemon that the new order brought by the Gospel changes human hierarchy. Onesimus is now a brother in the body of Christ and thus should be treated differently. Although we are left without specific implications, we see Paul exercise his leverage as a Christian leader to change the structure of Philemon’s household and raise the position of Onesimus.
How is it exactly that we read this text so differently than those pro-slavery Christians did? We’d like to think that we do so because we are more virtuous or smarter, but if we’re willing to look at ourselves critically, we will likely find we have more in common with these pro-slavery advocates than we think we do. They were doing something that everyone does, reading the Bible with the assumption that it will validate the beliefs and values that we already hold. We often approach scripture with a cavalier sense that we already know what God has to say. We find it hard to look at biblical passages with fresh eyes, to be humble enough to find that God is challenging us, or even to discover that we may actually be wrong in our beliefs.
One way to find the humility that is so badly needed in discerning God’s voice in scripture is to explore it with a diverse group of people. Study a passage with people who have different life experience or who begin with different viewpoints than the ones we already hold. Our life experiences of discrimination, poverty, wealth, tragedy, rural context, urban context, the relationships we hold, and our political commitments, all influence our beliefs and how we read the Bible. If we sincerely want to hear God’s voice, letting go of our certainty and allowing ourselves to be challenged by God’s voice as heard through another person is a good place to start.
Here’s the sermon: