St John Chrysostom’s Homiletic Commentary on Philemon 9-19

Ver. 9. “Yet for love’s sake, I rather beseech thee.”

As if he had said, I know indeed that I can effect it by commanding with much authority, from things which have already taken place. But because I am very solicitous about this matter, “I beseech thee.” He shows both these things at once; that he has confidence in him, for he commands him;1 and that he is exceedingly concerned about the matter, wherefore he beseeches him.

“Being such an one,” he says, “as Paul the aged.” Strange! how many things are here to shame him into compliance! Paul, from the quality of his person, from his age, because he was old, and from what was more just than all, because he was also “a prisoner of Jesus Christ.”

For who would not receive with open arms a combatant who had been crowned? Who seeing him bound for Christ’s sake, would not have granted him ten thousand favors? By so many considerations having previously soothed his mind, he has not immediately introduced the name, but defers making so great a request. For you know what are the minds of masters towards slaves that have run away; and particularly when they have done this with robbery, even if they have good masters, how their anger is increased. This anger then having taken all these pains to soothe, and having first persuaded him readily to serve him in anything whatever, and having prepared his soul to all obedience, then he introduces his request, and says, “I beseech thee,” and with the addition of praises, “for my son whom I have begotten in my bonds.”

Again the chains are mentioned to shame him into compliance, and then the name. For he has not only extinguished his anger, but has caused him to be delighted. For I would not have called him my son, he says, if he were not especially profitable. What I called Timothy, that I call him also. And repeatedly showing his affection, he urges him by the very period of his new birth, “I have begotten him in my bonds,” he says, so that on this account also he was worthy to obtain much honor, because he was begotten in his very conflicts, in his trials in the cause of Christ.

Ver. 11.  Onesimus “Which in time past was to thee unprofitable.”

See how great is his prudence, how he confesses the man’s faults, and thereby extinguishes his anger. I know, he says, that he was unprofitable.

“But now” he will be “profitable to thee and to me.”

He has not said he will be useful to thee, lest he should contradict it, but he has introduced his own person, that his hopes may seem worthy of credit, “But now,” he says, “profitable to thee and to me.” For if he was profitable to Paul, who required so great strictness, much more would he be so to his master.

Ver. 12. “Whom I have sent again to thee.”

By this also he has quenched his anger, by delivering him up. For masters are then most enraged, when they are entreated for the absent, so that by this very act he mollified him the more.

Ver. 12 cont. “Thou therefore receive him, that is mine own bowels.”

And again he has not given the bare name, but uses with it a word that might move him, which is more affectionate than son. He has said, “son,” he has said, “I have begotten” him,2 so that it was probable3 he would love him much, because he begot him in his trials. For it is manifest that we are most inflamed with affection for those children, who have been born to us in dangers which we have escaped, as when the Scripture saith, “Woe, Barochabel!”4 and again when Rachel names Benjamin, “the son of my sorrow.” (Gen. 35:18.)

“Thou therefore,” he says, “receive him, that is mine own bowels.” He shows the greatness of his affection. He has not said, Take him back,5 he has not said, Be not angry,6 but “receive him”; that is, he is worthy not only of pardon, but of honor. Why? Because he is become the son of Paul.

Ver. 13. “Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the Gospel.”

Dost thou see after how much previous preparation, he has at length brought him honorably before his master, and observe with how much wisdom he has done this. See for how much he makes him answerable, and how much he honors the other. Thou hast found, he says, a way by which thou mayest through him repay thy service to me. Here he shows that he has considered his advantage more than that of his slave, and that he respects him exceedingly.

Ver. 14. “But without thy mind,” he says, “would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be, as it were, of necessity, but willingly.”

This particularly flatters the person asked, when the thing being profitable in itself, it is brought out with his concurrence. For two good effects are produced thence, the one person gains, and the other is rendered more secure. And he has not said, That it should not be of necessity, but “as it were of necessity.” For I knew, he says, that not having learnt1 it, but coming to know it at once, thou wouldest not have been angry, but nevertheless out of an excess of consideration, that it should “not be as it were of necessity.”

Ver. 15, 16. “For perhaps he was therefore parted from thee for a season that thou shouldest have him for ever; no longer as a bond-servant.”

He has well said, “perhaps,” that the master may yield. For since the flight arose from perverseness, and a corrupt mind, and not from such intention, he has said, “perhaps.” And he has not said, therefore he fled, but, therefore he was “separated,”2 by a more fair sounding expression softening him the more. And he has not said, He separated himself, but, “he was separated.” For it was not his own arrangement that he should depart either for this purpose or for that. Which also Joseph says, in making excuse for his brethren, “For God did send me hither” (Gen. 45:5), that is, He made use of their wickedness for a good end. “Therefore,” he says, “he was parted for a season.”3 Thus he contracts the time, acknowledges the offense, and turns it all to a providence.4 “That thou shouldest receive him,” he says, “for ever,” not for the present season only, but even for the future, that thou mightest always have him, no longer a slave, but more honorable than a slave. For thou wilt have a slave abiding with thee, more well-disposed than a brother, so that thou hast gained both in time, and in the quality of thy slave. For hereafter he will not run away. “That thou shouldest receive him,” he says, “for ever,” that is, have him again.

“No longer as a bond-servant, but more than a bond-servant, a brother beloved, especially to me.”

Thou hast lost a slave for a short time, but thou wilt find a brother for ever, not only thy brother, but mine also. Here also there is much virtue. But if he is my brother, thou also wilt not be ashamed of him. By calling him his son, he hath shown his natural affection; and by calling him his brother, his great good will for him, and his equality in honor.

These things are not written without an object, but that we masters may not despair of our servants, nor press too hard on them, but may learn to pardon the offenses of such servants, that we may not be always severe, that we may not from their servitude be ashamed to make them partakers with us in all things when they are good. For if Paul was not ashamed to call one “his son, his own bowels, his brother, his beloved,” surely we ought not to be ashamed. And why do I say Paul? The Master of Paul is not ashamed to call our servants His own brethren; and are we ashamed? See how He honors us; He calls our servants His own brethren, friends, and fellow-heirs. See to what He has descended! What therefore having done, shall we have accomplished our whole duty? We shall never in any wise do it; but to whatever degree of humility we have come, the greater part of it is still left behind. For consider, whatever thou doest, thou doest to a fellow-servant, but thy Master hath done it to thy servants. Hear and shudder! Never be elated at thy humility!

Perhaps you laugh at the expression, as if humility could puff up. But be not surprised at it, it puffs up, when it is not genuine. How, and in what manner? When it is practiced to gain the favor of men, and not of God, that we may be praised, and be high-minded. For this also is diabolical. For as many are vainglorious on account of their not being vainglorious,5 so are they elated on account of their humbling themselves, by reason of their being high-minded. For instance, a brother has come, or even a servant thou hast received him, thou hast washed his feet; immediately thou thinkest highly of thyself. I have done, thou sayest, what no other has done. I have achieved humility. How then may any one continue in humility? If he remembers the command of Christ, which says, “When ye shall have done all things, say, We are unprofitable servants.” (Luke 17:10.) And again the Teacher of the world, saying, “I count not myself to have apprehended.” (Phil. 3:13.) He who has persuaded himself that he has done no great thing, however many things he may have done, he alone can be humble-minded, he who thinks that he has not reached perfection.

Many are elated on account of their humility; but let not us be so affected. Hast thou done any act of humility? be not proud of it, otherwise all the merit of it is lost. Such was the Pharisee, he was puffed up because he gave his tythes to the poor, and he lost all the merit of it. (Luke 18:12.) But not so the publican. Hear Paul again saying, “I know nothing by myself, yet am I not hereby justified.” (1 Cor. 4:4.) Seest thou that he does not exalt himself, but by every means abases and humbles himself, and that too when he had arrived at the very summit. And the Three Children were in the fire, and in the midst of the furnace, and what said they? “We have sinned and committed iniquity with our fathers.” (Song, 5:6, in Sept.; Dan. 3:29, 30; 5:16.) This it is to have a contrite heart; on this account they could say, “Nevertheless in a contrite heart and a humble spirit let us be accepted.” Thus even after they had fallen into the furnace they were exceedingly humbled, even more so than they were before. For when they saw the miracle that was wrought, thinking themselves unworthy of that deliverance, they were brought lower in humility. For when we are persuaded that we have received great benefits beyond our desert, then we are particularly grieved. And yet what benefit had they received beyond their desert? They had given themselves up to the furnace; they had been taken captive for the sins of others; for they were still young; and they murmured not, nor were indignant, nor did they say, What good is it to us that we serve God, or what advantage have we in worshiping Him? This man is impious, and is become our lord. We are punished with the idolatrous by an idolatrous king. We have been led into captivity. We are deprived of our country, our freedom, all our paternal goods, we are become prisoners and slaves, we are enslaved to a barbarous king. None of these things did they say. But what? “We have sinned and committed iniquity.” And not for themselves but for others they offer prayers. Because, say they, “Thou hast delivered us to a hateful and a wicked king.” Again, Daniel, being a second time cast into the pit, said, “For God hath remembered me.” Wherefore should He not remember1 thee, O Daniel, when thou didst glorify Him before the king, saying, “Not for any wisdom that I have”? (Dan. 2:30.) But when thou wast cast into the den of lions, because thou didst not obey that most wicked decree, wherefore should He not remember thee? For this very reason surely should He.2 Wast thou not cast into it on His account? “Yea truly,” he says, “but I am a debtor for many things.” And if he said such things after having displayed so great virtue, what should we say after this? But hear what David says, “If He thus say, I have no delight in thee, behold here am I, let Him do to me as seemeth good unto Him.” (2 Sam. 15:26.) And yet he had an infinite number of good things to speak of. And Eli also says, “It is the Lord: let Him do what seemeth Him good.” (1 Sam. 3:18.)

This is the part of well-disposed servants, not only in His mercies, but in His corrections, and in punishments wholly to submit to Him. For how is it not absurd,3 if we bear with masters beating their servants, knowing that they will spare them, because they are their own;4 and yet suppose that God in punishing will not spare? This also Paul has intimated, saying, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” (Rom. 14:8.) A man, we say, wishes not his property to be diminished, he knows how he punishes, he is punishing his own servants. But surely no one of us spares more than He Who brought us into being out of nothing, Who maketh the sun to rise, Who causeth rain; Who breathed our life into us, Who gave His own Son for us.

But as I said before, and on which account I have said all that I have said, let us be humble-minded as we ought, let us be moderate as we ought. Let it not be to us an occasion of being puffed up. Art thou humble, and humbler than all men? Be not high-minded on that account, neither reproach others, lest thou lose thy boast. For this very cause thou art humble, that thou mayest be delivered from the madness of pride; if therefore through thy humility thou fallest into that madness, it were better for thee not to be humble. For hear Paul saying, “Sin worketh death in me by that which is good, that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.” (Rom. 7:13.) When it enters into thy thought to admire thyself because thou art humble, consider thy Master, to what He descended, and thou wilt no longer admire thyself, nor praise thyself, but wilt deride thyself as having done nothing. Consider thyself altogether to be a debtor. Whatever thou hast done, remember that parable, “Which of you having a servant … will say unto him, when he is come in, Sit down to meat?… I say unto you, Nay … but stay and serve me.” (From Luke 17:7, 8.) Do we return thanks to our servants, for waiting upon us? By no means. Yet God is thankful to us, who serve not Him, but do that which is expedient for ourselves.

But let not us be so affected, as if He owed us thanks, that He may owe us the more, but as if we were discharging a debt. For the matter truly is a debt, and all that we do is of debt. For if when we purchase slaves with our money, we wish them to live altogether for us, and whatever they have to have it for ourselves, how much more must it be so with Him, who brought us out of nothing into being, who after this bought us with His precious Blood, who paid down such a price for us as no one would endure to pay for his own son, who shed His own Blood for us? If therefore we had ten thousand souls, and should lay them all down for Him, should we make Him an equal return? By no means. And why? Because He did this, owing us nothing, but the whole was a matter of grace. But we henceforth are debtors: and being God Himself, He became a servant, and not being subject to death, subjected Himself to death in the flesh. We, if we do not lay down our lives for Him, by the law of nature must certainly lay them down, and a little later shall be separated from it,1 however unwillingly. So also in the case of riches, if we do not bestow them for His sake, we shall render them up from necessity at our end. So it is also with humility. Although we are not humble for His sake, we shall be made humble by tribulations, by calamities, by over-ruling powers. Seest thou therefore how great is the grace! He hath not said, “What great things do the Martyrs do? Although they die not for Me, they certainly will die.” But He owns Himself much indebted to them, because they voluntarily resign that which in the course of nature they were about to resign shortly against their will. He hath not said, “What great thing do they, who give away their riches? Even against their will they will have to surrender them.” But He owns Himself much indebted to them too, and is not ashamed to confess before all that He, the Master, is nourished by His slaves.

For this also is the glory of a Master, to have grateful slaves. And this is the glory of a Master, that He should thus love His slaves. And this is the glory of a Master, to claim for His own what is theirs. And this is the glory of a Master, not to be ashamed to confess them before all. Let us therefore be stricken with awe at this so great love of Christ. Let us be inflamed with this love-potion. Though a man be low and mean, yet if we hear that he loves us, we are above all things warmed with love towards him, and honor him exceedingly. And do we then love? and when our Master loveth us so much, we are not excited? Let us not, I beseech you, let us not be so indifferent with regard to the salvation of our souls, but let us love Him according to our power, and let us spend all upon His love, our life, our riches, our glory, everything, with delight, with joy, with alacrity, not as rendering anything to Him, but to ourselves. For such is the law of those who love. They think that they are receiving favors, when they are suffering wrong for the sake of their beloved. Therefore let us be so affected towards our Lord, that we2 also may partake of the good things to come in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Ver. 17-19. “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee at all, or oweth thee aught, put that to mine account; I Paul write it with mine own hand, I will repay it: that I say not to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.”

NO procedure is so apt to gain a hearing,3 as not to ask for everything at once. For see after how many praises, after how much preparation he hath introduced this great matter. After having said that he is “my son,” that he is a partaker of the Gospel, that he is “my bowels,” that thou receivest him back “as a brother,” and “hold him as a brother,” then he has added “as myself.” And Paul was not ashamed to do this. For he who was not ashamed to be called the servant of the faithful, but confesses that he was such, much more would he not refuse this. But what he says is to this effect. If thou art of the same mind with me, if thou runnest upon the same terms,4 if thou considerest me a friend, receive him as myself.

“If he hath wronged thee at all.” See where and when he has introduced the mention of the injury; last, after having said so many things in his behalf. For since the loss of money is particularly apt to annoy men, that he might not accuse him of this, (for it was most likely that it was spent,) then he brings in this, and says, “If he hath wronged thee.” He does not say, If he has stolen anything; but what? “If he hath wronged thee.” At the same time he both confessed the offense, and not as if it were the offense of a servant, but of a friend against a friend, making use of the expression of “wrong” rather than of theft.

“Put that to mine account,” he says, that is, reckon the debt to me, “I will repay it.” Then also with that spiritual pleasantry,

“I Paul write1 it with mine own hand.” At once movingly and pleasantly; if when Paul did not refuse to execute a bond for him, he should refuse to receive him! This would both shame Philemon into compliance, and bring Onesimus out of trouble. “I write it,” he says, “with mine own hand.” Nothing is more affectionate than these “bowels,” nothing more earnest, nothing more zealous. See what2 great concern he bestows in behalf of one man. “Albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.” Then that it might not appear insulting to him, whom he requests, if he had not the confidence to ask and obtain in behalf of a theft, he in some measure relieves this, saying, “That I say not unto thee how thou owest to me even thine own self besides.” Not only thine own things, but thyself also. And this proceeded from love, and was according to the rule of friendship, and was a proof of his great confidence. See how he everywhere provides for both, that he may ask with great security, and that this may not seem a sign of too little3 confidence in him.

[NOTE.—The views of the Fathers on Slavery and Emancipation were very cautious, as slavery was interwoven with the whole structure of the Roman empire and could not be suddenly abolished without a radical social revolution. But the spirit of Christianity always suggested and encouraged individual emancipation and the ultimate abolition of the institution by teaching the universal love of God, the common redemption and brotherhood of men, and the sacredness of personality. Comp. Bishop Lightfoot’s Commentary on Colossians and Philemon, and Schaff’s Church History, I. 793–798; II. 347–354; III. 115–122. Möhler, in his Vermischte Schriften, II. 896 sqq., has collected the views of St. Chrysostom on slavery, and says that since the time of the Apostle Paul no one has done more valuable service to slaves than St. Chrysostom.—P. S.]

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One Response to St John Chrysostom’s Homiletic Commentary on Philemon 9-19

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | stjoeofoblog

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