To Love with Disinterest

Dude, Ethical Jesus, My Man!

In Paul’s Eyes, ethical behavior is to live each moment of one’s life striving to follow foot-by-foot behind Jesus and act as he acts; Paul sees morality under the terms of what God has made capable for us to achieve through the sacrifice of His son. God sets forth a way he intends for humans to live their lives. He does this by sending the ultimate truth, the incarnation, the Son of God. The presence of established truths within a society is central to evaluating the moral structure of a human being. With a purpose for existence on earth, the apostle Paul, shows what semblance of perfection humanity can achieve, through his letters telling of virtue over victory and glory over goods. Paul defines in his letters to Philemon, the Thessalonians, the Galatians, and the Philippians the qualities that characterize the depth of one’s righteousness and the unpleasant qualities that rid a person of their morals.

“Ethics,” through the eyes of Mott, is described in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, as “the personal character [Paul demonstrated that was] integral to [a] new life created by faith in Jesus christ” (Mott, 269). Paul’s ethical, personal character embodied both the faithfulness in Christ Jesus and the righteousness God expects from him. In Paul’s early letters, such as 1 Thessalonians, “ethics was a means of preserving the present state of holiness up to the day of judgement” (Mott, 270). The foundation formed through God’s gift of salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection is “the ground of ethical appeal for Paul” (Mott, 269). “Freedom in Christ is not an opportunity for selfishness, but compels us to be slaves to one another in love” (Galatians 5:13-14). This passage reminds me of the gospel of Luke; “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). On the other hand, Richard Hays in “Paul: The Koinonia in His Sufferings,” from The Moral Vision of the New Testament, argues that there is no actual connection between ethics and Christianity. Hays says that Paul never offered communities “a manual of discipline” or systematically set forth a set of “Christian Ethics” (Hays, 17). He argues that each letter is situationally specific and should, therefore, be taken in the exact historical context and separately examined (Hays, 19).

Written while imprisoned, Paul’s letter to Philemon is indisputably addressed to only one group of people, rather than an entire congregation, according to Powell. It is addressed to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and “to the church in your house,” not to any and all congregations (Philemon 1:1-2). It is considered the only letter of Paul’s that is primarily meant for just the eyes of a singular group, more specifically, for the eyes of Philemon. Philemon was an apparently wealthy and influential man; this can be concluded through his ownership of slaves (Philemon 1:16) and his ability to host church gatherings in his home (Philemon 1:2). Paul knows Philemon well enough to refer to him as a “dear friend and co-worker” (Philemon 1:1). However, they are not exact equals (Powell, 416). Philemon is a friend of Paul’s, but a friend in the sense of the Roman context of friendship. In the Roman world, the relationship between friends held much more significance on the “notion of reciprocity” than on whether the personalities of the two people were compatible. In the terms of professional friendships, some Roman acquaintances may have never even met (Powell, 415). Philemon and Paul, as mentioned previously, are not exact equals.

The friendship between them is a relationship defined as that of an apostle to disciple. The apostolic authority here goes to Paul, who after blessing and thanking Philemon for his faithfulness, asks for a favor. While imprisoned, Paul writes of how Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, has become like a son to him during his incarceration. In the letter, Paul says that he has sent Onesimus back to Philemon, but an undertone of reluctance is evident. Paul seems to be implicating that he wishes that Philemon would allow for Onesimus to return back to him. Paul even offers to repay any debt that Onesimus has inflicted on Philemon. Paul ends the letter by asking Philemon to have a guest room prepared for Paul plans to visit soon (Philemon 1:22). Being Paul’s shortest letter, Paul is sure to get his point across, quality over quantity. He mentions to Philemon that he does not mean to force him into giving back the slave, and he tells Philemon to return Onesimus, if, and only if, it is voluntary (Philemon 1:14). This leads into the ethics behind Paul’s letter. He asks Philemon to allow Onesimus to return to him only if he is willing to. Paul is alluding to morality, which I find absurd, all of it– they are both slave-owners, no morality in that, but I proceed. This relates to the same forced ethical behavior that Paul warns the Philippians to avoid in his letter to them (Philippians 2:6-8). In the context of my own discourse on ethics in Christianity, particularly Paul’s ethics, imagine forced ethical behavior as being the act of putting on a mask of kindness; for example, if you were leaving a restaurant, and instead of holding the door open for an elderly woman because you want to help her safely exit the building, you are actually holding the door for the woman because you want to impress your date, then your actions are actually egotistical and self-maximizing. Paul warns the Philippians to be faithful, not for any rewards, but “for the sake of knowing Christ, and obtaining the righteousness of that, comes through faith” (Powell, 345).

The desire to behave with utmost virtue should be a constant goal. Though it can be challenging at many times, Paul commends the Thessalonians, in his first letter to them, for their faithfulness (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3). Despite persecution and general judgment from others, the Thessalonians responded to the gospel by turning away from idols and turning towards the light of the Lord. With this noble loyalty to God, we see what actions Paul views and emphasizes as important. To act out of a place of truthful humility, is to act with correct and voluntary morality.

Getting back to the letter Paul sends to Philemon, Paul asks for Philemon to be honest with him on the basis of repaying any debt that Onesimus may have left, burdening Philemon. Paul tells him to not hold back on asking for compensation for gifting his own slave to Paul. These verses also reveal Paul’s implicit ethical instructions to not hold a person’s debts against them. Paul reveals more of this implicit instructions on morality when he writes, “Confident in your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Philemon 1:21). Paul is implying that if Philemon is a “good human” and follows the way of Jesus, and the purity and integrity of his heart already exists, being enough to trust Philemon.

When reading Paul’s letter to Philemon, one should note the “apostle to disciple” type relations that define Paul and Philemon’s friendship. Since Paul was apparently, responsible for Philemon’s conversion to Christianity, there is a sense that Philemon owes Paul his very own ‘self” (Philemon 1:19). According to Powell, it can be inferred that “Paul assumes authority over Philemon in matters of faith and duty” (Powell, 416). This can be referenced also in the beginning of the body of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Paul writes, “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty” However, Paul continues, “yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love” (Philemon 1:8-9). This establishes a sense of ethical grounds for the two people involved. Paul wishes to approach this favor with an intention of acting out of love and consideration, rather then using the his power against Philemon, the debt of his conversion.

By analyzing one’s actions, habitual behaviors can be pinpointed– to expose the true nature of a person’s motivation and to focus on the ethical intellect on the actual intended goodness present behind an individual’s decisions.With this overarching concept of choice: either leading to good or bad fortune, both scholars grapple with the theories of humanism and the idea of inevitable destiny taking the upper-hand over all organisms in the universe. The morals of an individual are best depicted through their actions and reactions to the pressures of temptation. Paul reinforces the importance of a human’s need to root themselves in goodness and virtue in order to reach optimal potential and success.

For my Religion 102 Class: Early Christianity & The Study the New Testament

by: Kendra Elisabeth Muecke


M.C. Escher's Tessalation:  “Circle Limit IV”  (Woodcut, 1960)
M.C. Escher’s Tessalation:
“Circle Limit IV”
(Woodcut, 1960)

5 thoughts on “To Love with Disinterest”

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