While preaching from scripture this week (Philemon) this past Sunday I could not help to be reminded of a similar story in American literature, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I also wished I had preached from Twain’s tale.

In Philemon, Paul is writing to Philemon concerning his slave Onesimus. Onesimus has become separated from Philemon (for a reason that is not clear), but has come into contact with Paul while he is in prison. In the letter, Paul commends and sends Onesimus back to his owner, pleading with Philemon to forgive, love, and restore Onesimus back into his house. In fact, Paul wants Philemon to accept Onesimus no longer as a slave, but as a dear brother, as Paul’s own heart.

Paul’s letter to Philemon reminds me of Huck’s letter to Miss Watson. As Huck is sailing down the river with Jim (one of Miss Watson’s house slaves) he realizes that it would be right and proper to return Jim to his owner. Societal norms, in fact, dictate that the responsible course of action for Huck is to turn in Jim to the authorities. So, Huck writes a letter to Miss Watson to do just that, return Jim to her. However, as Huck ponders his relationship with Jim he recalls Jim’s friendship and companionship.  He delights in the wonderful times they have shared together. Huck then tears up the letter.

After preaching on the scriptural story yesterday I wished that I had chosen Twain’s text.

Immediately after the service folks asked, “Was Paul condoning slavery? If Paul was against slavery why would he send the slave back to the master?  In Paul’s other letters doesn’t he say for salves to obey masters?”  (I wasn’t sure if should be pleased or disturbed.  On one hand the questioners demonstrated a knowledgeable and close reading of scripture.  Yet, perhaps it wasn’t close enough!)

In Philemon, we could say that Paul dearly loves Onesimus and praises him for his faith in Christ.  He hopes for Philemon to forgo punishment and restore Onesimus to a right relationship with him.  Grace is present.  However, in returning Onesimus  to his owner we might wonder why Paul doesn’t take a stand against slavery.  We are left asking why Paul does not explicitly reject the institution which holds Onesismus in bondage.

What about Huck?  Is Huck more gracious?  It might appear so.   He refuses to see Jim as the “thing” society defines him as.  Huck will not participate in any way in the evil institution of slavery and racism.  Huck acts in ways to subvert the cultural mores.  In the end, he praises and enjoys Jim for being the very thing he was created to be – a friend and a beloved child of God.

Could it be that Huck tears up the letter that Paul actually sent?