Best of Daily Reflections: You Are Not the Boss of Me, God Is
“…you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” (Philemon 15-16)
Several years ago, we interviewed Lauren Winner for the High Calling when she was at Laity Lodge. She challenged our thinking about work when she said boldly, “My problems with work are not most people's problems. I have work that I really like, and I have work that pays me a living wage.” Reading Philemon, it isn’t hard to see a parallel between Onesimus, the slave, and people who are working at mindless jobs that don’t provide a living wage.
Of course, as a slave, a doulus, Onesimus was in a powerless situation. In theory, the working poor can gradually earn their way toward better jobs. Though such advancement is harder than it sounds, the working poor are not literally slaves. Still, the working poor are poor. If I work at minimum wage forty hours a week for fifty weeks a year, I will earn $14,500 annually. This amount is just above the poverty line for a single person and far below the poverty line for a family. This is before we even begin to address issues like health insurance and retirement plans.
Of course, these are complicated matters. Many different groups have proposed solutions to this political problem, but not many people deny the problem of poverty. As Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.” I do not believe Jesus said this in resignation, but as a challenge to Christians to continue to do what we can to help the poorest people in our culture.
If you are reading this, you do not likely work for minimum wage. You are probably in the position that is more analogous to Philemon, the boss, the master, the kurios. Paul calls Philemon to recognize and value Onesimus for his humanity. He is more than chattel; he is a dear brother to both Paul and Philemon.
There is something subtle going on in the Greek here. Paul reminds Philemon that he too is a slave to the Lord. The word for lord, kurios, is the same word to describe the owner of a slave. It is as if Paul is saying, “Philemon, you are not the master of Onesimus. God is. And God is your master too.”
Most readers of The High Calling live in a free market society. Paul doesn’t try to start a slave uprising, but he does insist that slaves be treated as fully human, children of God. I love the economic system of my country, but I also hear a challenge from Paul here. Am I so focused on success and socioeconomic status that I don’t treat everyone the same? I must remember: it is just as much an honor to serve God and earn minimum wage as it is to serve God and make five, six, or even seven figures.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Where do you fit in the socio-economic scale of your community and workplace? If you are low in the power structure, are you still working joyfully for those above you? If you are high in the power structure, are you remembering to treat everyone well, respecting them as humans and children of God?
PRAYER: Dear Lord, this passage from Paul fills me with anxiety. I am so blessed to be in a position where I can feed my family well and take care of their needs. I even have two weeks of paid vacation every year! Thank you so much, Lord, for the blessings you have given me. Forgive my ingratitude that sometimes creeps into my heart because of petty jealousies and unhealthy ambitions.
Instead, let me be ambitious to lift up others. Let me not merely condescend to their level with patronizing charity, but let me truly respect the human needs of everyone I meet at work, at home, at church, and in my community.
And I thank you most of all, that you are my final authority. You are the big boss in my life. You are the master, and I am the slave. You sacrificed yourself to purchase my freedom. Let me live in a way that shares that freedom and joy with others. Amen.
P.S. from Mark Roberts: The Daily Reflections for this week have been written by my friend and colleague, Marcus Goodyear. He has penned a wonderful five-day series based on the New Testament book of Philemon. I know you'll find these to be engaging and encouraging. In his "day job," Marcus oversees The High Calling website and digital community in his role as Senior Editor at Foundations for Laity Renewal. He is a teacher, poet, writer, speaker, and top-notch editor, not to mention husband, father, and valued friend. I know you'll appreciate Marcus' thoughtful reflections this week. I'll be back with you on Saturday.