The Least of These my Brothers
(by Jens Söring)
What on earth is the Epistle to Philemon doing in the New Testament? Hardly a page long, it does not even contain spiritual exhortation like the equally short Second and Third Epistles of John; instead, we see Paul asking his rich friend Philemon to forgive his runaway slave Onesimus. In those times, a man like Onesimus was considered a common criminal, a kind of thief, so the modem equivalent of Paul's Epistle to Philemon might be a letter of support to the parole board. Why did the Church Fathers include something so seemingly unspiritual in the canon of scripture?
One reason is, surely, that helping a felon like Onesimus in such a direct and practical way is a perfect example of how Christians can continue Jesus' mission to society's outcasts. "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners," our Savior told the Pharisees, and he seems to have genuinely enjoyed the company of lepers and Demoniacs and loose women and tax collectors (Matthew 9:13). Nor did Christ merely preach at them, as his cousin John the Baptist did; instead, he cured their physical and mental illnesses, fed large crowds, livened up a wedding party with wine, and showed luckless fishermen where to cast their nets for a big haul. Early followers of his understood that faith in the Messiah had to express itself in similarly pragmatic ways: "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him" (1 John 3:17; cf. James 2:14-17)?
That even convicted criminals should be at the receiving end of such charitable activity was made clear by Jesus in particularly dramatic fashion in the parable of the sheep and the goats. Here he identified himself with prisoners?men like Onesimus, if Onesimus were convicted?and pointed out that service to them was really service to him. "Then the righteous will answer him, ?Lord, when ... did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The king will reply, ?I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me' " (Matthew 25:37, 39, 40).
Yet another reason why the Epistle to Philemon may have been included in the canon is that the authors of scripture recognized not only Christ but themselves in the faces of convicts. "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering," we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews (13:3). Although many of the apostles were jailed at one point or another, there is no indication in the context of this passage that the writer meant we should extend our compassion only to incarcerated missionaries. He seems to have wanted us to "remember [all] those in prison"?even criminals like Onesimus?"as if you were their fellow prisoners."
Why should we as Christians identify so closely with jail inmates that we see ourselves as "their fellow prisoners?" What might we have in common with the dregs of society?
Paul gave us the answer to these questions in the famous opening passage of his First Epistle to the Corinthians:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things?and the things that are not?to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him" (1:26-29).
In other words, it is only through the experience of our own weakness and brokenness, our utter dependence and helplessness, that we can actually come to know the one who can save us. "For Christ's sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong [through] Christ's power" (2 Corinthians 12:10, 9).
Identifying personally with the lowly and the despised?whether a loose woman like Mary Magdalene or a felon like Onesimus?in fact benefits us spiritually, by reminding us of our own weakness and keeping us open to God's saving grace. As soon as we let ourselves drift over to the other side of the socio-spiritual equation?the Pharisees who condemned Mary Magdalene, Philemon who owned Onesimus?we begin to rely on ourselves instead of on Christ. And we will surely miss the narrow gate.
Wise men of our own age, like Henri Nouwen, understood this principle well. He left a prestigious professorship at Harvard to live as a resident caregiver to the mentally and physically handicapped in a L'Arche community. There, among the truly helpless, he could stay in touch with his own need for God.
And prisoners can teach all of us the same life- and soul-saving lesson; certainly they did so in my case. The fact that I myself have spent seventeen years in the penitentiary made this insight especially difficult for me to accept. After all, I know more about jailbirds than you ever will: inmates broke my arm twice, inmates schemed and in one case actually tried to rape me, inmates have cheated and stolen from me, inmates have told outrageous and harmful lies about me both in court and out?the list goes on and on. Convicts on the whole are not very nice people, and they have given me every reason to regard them as enemies. Yet I now see them as my brothers and teachers. What I have come to understand is that we share one central characteristic: we are weak. We are absolutely helpless. In their helplessness and ignorance, these men lash out?at you, when they burgle your house; at me, when they harm me in prison. But at the center of their being, they are as frail and feeble and powerless as I am.
And as you are. For you are just as dependent on God's help as Onesimus the criminal was. But even if you truly feel your brotherhood with Onesimus now, as you read these lines, how long will that knowledge last? Ten minutes? Twenty?
Perhaps there is a wisdom in what Jesus and Paul did in order to "remember those in prison as if you yourselves were their fellow prisoners:" they involved themselves in the lives of men who wear chains. Jesus went out to the Gerasene Demoniac, who "had often been chained hand and foot," and spent time with him (Mark 5:4). Paul not only traveled with Onesimus but wrote a "letter to the parole board," the Epistle to his owner Philemon, to try to win that criminal's freedom. Neither the Messiah nor the apostle seem to have preached much to the prisoners they sought out; instead, they helped these men on a very practical level and let the testimony of their lives speak of their faith. Might there be a lesson in this for Christians today?