My 2020 pandemic show was Cobra Kai, the 21st century “second generation” of the Karate Kid saga. What can I say? I’m a sucker for 80s throwback shows. I remember watching an interview with Cobra Kai producers and cast members about why the show has been so successful and how it is different from the source material movies. One of the key differences, they said, was not in the plot or the introduction of new characters, but rather in their representation of good and evil. You see, the 20th-century Karate Kid films, for the most part, had pretty clear lines dividing the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” You knew who to cheer for—Daniel LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi (in white) because they were innocent and noble. And you booed and jeered at the Cobra Kai clan (in black) because they were devious and bloodthirsty. You rooted for the virtuous underdog, even if they lost their way now and again.
Cobra Kai’s presentation of good and evil is messier—reflecting the complexities of life in the “real world.” A superficial glance at grown-up Daniel LaRusso (Miyagi’s apprentice) and Johnny Lawrence (of Cobra Kai dojo) still offers the veneer of that good guy vs. bad guy framework. But pretty quickly the viewer is confronted with a messier, more nuanced, more convoluted profile of each of the key players in the new edition of the saga. There are redeemable qualities in Cobra Kai’s (now grown-up) Lawrence, and there is a dark side to the karate-underdog-turned-successful-car-salesman LaRusso. If the Karate Kid movies cashed in on the feel-good nature of a black-and-white story of good conquering evil, Cobra Kai has won big on doing a deeper dive into the “grayscale” gradients that reflect our complex up-and-down lives—each of us is fighting a personal battle to let good conquer evil in our own hearts and lives, sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. So, you don’t know exactly who to cheer for, and likewise, you don’t know who to root against—who exactly is the bad guy in this episode?
By now you are probably wondering what a biblical scholar (me) is doing giving my amateur hot take on a modern teen karate drama. Believe it or not, this “grayscale” concept can help us understand the Bible better.
Just as not all fiction stories trade in one-dimensional characters, so too with the Bible and its tales. We find a clear example in Philemon. When it comes to Paul’s shortest letter, his epistle to church leader Philemon, we are not quite sure what kind of person Philemon was. But as we explore the fascinating dynamics of this brief Pauline missive with the grayscale in mind, we see a church leader with darkness and light in him, and an apostle willing to believe there is hope.
The Story Behind Paul’s Shortest Letter
Most of Paul’s letters involve situations where there is lots of drama—Christians arguing and fighting, questions and debates over theological matters, and serious but often unclear (to us today) outside enemies or opponents wreaking havoc on one of Paul’s communities. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a nice respite from that din because the situation basically involves three people plus Philemon’s church community engaged in the background: the imprisoned Paul, his Christian friend and slave owner Philemon, and Philemon’s (now Christian) slave Onesimus.
I should say from the outset that the modern Christian church has rightly condemned slavery as wicked. But this was not immediately apparent to the apostles. They did not call out slavery as a social evil, for reasons we are still not clear about. But they did want fair and benevolent treatment of slaves, which was at least a step in the right direction. Along these lines, we will explore below how Paul desired to see the gospel transform Philemon as a slavemaster. We can learn much from this first-century episode in Paul’s ministry, while also recognizing that God desires a world without slaves and masters at all.
We don’t know exactly what happened in the circumstances behind this letter, but for centuries Christian writers surmised that Onesimus ran away from his master, happened upon Paul, converted to Christian faith, and now was being sent home a new man to make peace with his master. A modified version of this scenario involves Onesimus having a falling out with his master Philemon and leaving, not to escape slavery, but to enlist help from Paul to mediate the relational breakdown. I’ve come across about a half dozen different scenarios involving Onesimus, Philemon, and Paul; these are the two most popular.
So, what is Paul’s letter all about? Clearly, Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon wanting them to reconcile. Onesimus had become a Christian through conversing with Paul, and now he was going home as a Christian brother. Paul’s deepest hope was that Philemon would give Onesimus a warm welcome and not a tongue-lashing, worse yet an actual lashing. Paul wrote, not just to Philemon, but the whole church that met in his home (20-30 Christians?), not to shame him into obedience, but to hold the entire community accountable to living out the transformative work of the gospel of Jesus Christ that bursts with compassion, clemency, and grace. You might see the letter to Philemon as a practical working out of the Pauline maxim “neither slave nor free” (Gal 3:28). Speaking of freedom.
Free at Last?
Modern readers of Philemon, when they realize Paul was sending a slave back to his master, are inevitably struck by the question—why didn’t Paul (explicitly) tell Philemon to give the slave Onesimus his freedom? Or did he do so subtly? After all, Paul exhorts Philemon to receive Onesimus back as more than a slave, as a beloved brother (v. 16). Could this mean Paul wanted Onesimus to be freed? Some scholars think that Paul was nudging Philemon in this direction, but didn’t want to dictate giving Onesimus his freedom to his friend. Others argue that Paul was less concerned with changing Onesimus’ position legally, and more so with how Philemon would treat him as a Christian brother. And others think that Paul didn’t explicitly say “free him,” because it was implied—masters granted slaves their freedom on a regular basis; many household slaves expected freedom to come sooner or later.
However we resolve this, what this letter makes clear is that Paul wanted Philemon to have a different posture towards Onesimus than he had before. He wanted Philemon to love Onesimus, to care for him, to treat him just as he would Paul.
Don’t Call Me “Apostle”
Treating a slave as you would an apostle is quite a remarkable notion. In the Roman world, slaves were at the bottom of society: mocked, abused, ignored, treated even as less than human by many. On the other hand, within Paul’s circles, apostles were respected Paul was someone with authority and status. In that kind of society, it mattered that you treat people according to their social level. Many people would have thought that if we treated everyone the same, the building blocks of society itself would crumble.
But Paul saw himself in the gospel business of turning things upside down to follow the strange logic and pattern of the cross of Christ. He wanted the elite Philemon to roll out the red carpet to welcome back Onesimus. At the same time, Paul wanted to adjust how Philemon and his church saw Paul too. They may have enjoyed knowing (and telling others they “knew”) a bona fide “apostle.” But in this letter, he doesn’t describe himself that way. He calls himself “prisoner Paul” (v.1), purposely moving down the social ladder. According to the social values of the time, “prisoner” would have been an embarrassment, like being an “ex-con” today and trying to apply for a job. Clearly, Paul wanted Philemon and his church to reconsider how we label and categorize people. In Gospel land, it doesn’t matter if you are a “somebody,” and the “nobodies” are given special esteem (1 Cor 1:28).
Philemon was Wrong, but not Evil
Now, it might seem like Philemon is the villain of this story. The elite slavemaster who has to be told not to punish his homecoming slave. But notice how Paul describes Philemon early in his letter. Philemon, Paul notes, is a leader full of love (4-5). He has a special gift for encouraging and lifting up other believers (7). He is a Spirit-led believer who follows through on doing what is right (vv. 21). Paul did not compliment Philemon just to butter him up. Paul was anxious to get out of prison and go and spend time with Philemon, experiencing his hospitality and fellowship again firsthand (22). Philemon was truly a “dear friend” (v1) to Paul. What should be clear in this letter, then, is that Philemon was not evil. In fact, he had some noble qualities. Put another way, Philemon had a good heart, and Paul thought he was someone he could reason with.
Paul knew Philemon needed to change. For all of his love and generosity towards fellow believers, Paul was worried about how Philemon would treat the slave Onesimus. It was common in those times for masters to beat slaves severely for just about any reason—the law gave few protections to slaves’ bodies, and their lives were viewed as expendable and replaceable. What if Philemon, the Christian leader, had such a low view of the dignity and humanity of slaves? In fact, one theory is that Philemon excluded Christian slaves from the church meetings he hosted, and overall mistreated his slaves whether they were Christian or not (like Onesimus before he met Paul). If that were the case, no wonder Onesimus was worried about returning home, even as a Christian brother.
Let’s say the scenario of Philemon as an unkind master is realistic. Then, Paul wanted to call out Philemon graciously, recognizing his potential, but challenging him in an area that needed to change. Philemon wasn’t evil in a black-and-white, binary sort of way. He was clearly capable of good, of great love. But clearly, he didn’t love every kind of person equally, the way Christ does, the way he should.
If there is hope for Philemon, there is hope for us too.
Paul’s way of engaging both his Christian brothers holds a powerful message for us today. Everywhere you turn, some people want you to believe the “other side” is evil. They want you to cheer for the old Daniel Larusso, and to jeer at the old Cobra Kai Johnny Lawrence. Because dividing lines are easy and comfortable. But the new storylines of the Cobra Kai saga remind us that real life doesn’t work that way. To quote Sirius Black of Harry Potter lore: “the world isn’t split into good people and [evil] Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside of us. What matters is the part we choose to act on.”
Sirius’ sentiments resonate with Paul’s message in his letter to Philemon. This short epistle is a love letter from an old prisoner who cares for both Onesimus (his new friend) and Philemon (his old friend). Paul does not tell a story of a villain (Philemon) and heroes (Paul, Onesimus). Instead, it’s a story of a friend standing in the gap to help Onesimus start a new life with Philemon, as Christian brothers. It’s an invitation to act on the light inside him. This will require Philemon to reckon with his own prejudices against slaves. But Paul clearly has faith that this change is possible.
Most scholars rightly note the careful and delicate way Paul expresses his expectations and Philemon’s responsibilities. Paul definitely put pressure on Philemon to change how he treated Onesimus. But this letter is also clearly one of love, respect, and admiration. Paul’s letter serves as an extraordinary gift to us, in a modern world where we so casually label, stereotype, and vilify anyone and everyone we think is “wrong.” It is easy to condemn and repudiate Christians associated with “blue politics” or “red politics.” To shun evangelicals or episcopalians for being “those kinds of people.” In Philemon, Paul shows us that part of choosing the good in ourselves is a willingness to see good in others, to hope for their growth towards maturity.
The letter to Philemon has a clear and urgent message to us, some two thousand years after Paul put pen to papyrus in a dank prison—a generous friend is in a powerful position to help us see our sins, failures, and biases. Onesimus needed Jesus, and Paul shared friendship and Jesus with him. Philemon needed to confront his prejudices against slaves. Paul could have told the church to shun him. To discipline him. To excommunicate him. To exile him. To demote him as a leader. To put him on probation. How dare Paul talk about how much he loved Philemon? How loving he is? How gifted he is as a host and leader? But this one-page epistle makes me wonder what could actually bring estranged Onesimus and Philemon together in a new kind of relationship, as friends and Christian brothers. Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that church ought to be the place where we model doing the hard work of reconciliation: "the will to give ourselves to others and welcome them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity” (Exclusion and Embrace, 29). Surely it is a gospel of grace that believes everyone capable of change, and a vision for a church that brings together the most unlikely kinds of people to worship and share life as one.
Cover image by Tom Barrett.