N. T. Wright. PAUL AND THE FAITHFULNESS OF GOD
Николас Томас Райт - Апостол Павел и верность Бога
PART I Paul and His World
Chapter One Return of the Runaway?
1. A World of Difference
(i) Pliny and Paul
Roughly seventy years after the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a Roman senator, mindful of his own importance and seniority, wrote to a friend about a third man, a social inferior who had got himself in trouble:
You told me you had been angry with a freedman of yours, and now he’s come to see me! He threw himself at my feet and clung on to me as though I were you. He wept a lot, he asked for a lot, though he kept quiet about a lot too. To sum it up, he made me believe that he was genuinely sorry. I think he is a changed character, because he really does feel that he did wrong.
Yes, I know you are angry; and I know, too, that you have a right to be angry. But mercy earns most praise when anger is fully justified. Once you loved this fellow, and I hope you will love him again; for the moment, it’s enough if you let yourself be placated. You can always be angry again if he deserves it, and you’ll have all the more reason if you’ve been placated now. He’s young, he’s in tears, and you have a kind heart – make all that count. Don’t torture him, and don’t torture yourself either; anger is always torture for a soft heart like yours.
I am afraid it will look as though I’m putting pressure on you, not simply making a request, if I join my prayers to his. But I’m going to do it anyway, and all the more fully and thoroughly because I’ve given him a sharp and severe talking-to, and I’ve warned him clearly that I won’t make such a request again. (This was because he needed a good fright, and I said it to him rather than to you, because it’s just possible that I shall make another request, and receive it too – always supposing it’s an appropriate thing for me to ask and for you to grant.)
Yours sincerely …
The writer was Pliny: Pliny the Younger, nephew of the great naturalist whose death (at the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79) he memorably described in another letter.1 This younger Pliny was a barrister, a senator, a public official who held a priesthood and other civil service appointments. He was elected to the Consulship for the autumn of AD 100; the office was, by then, nowhere near as important as it had been under the Republic, but it was still the highest civic honour available. After further work in the courts, the Senate and the civil service, he was sent by the emperor Trajan as his personal representative to Bithynia and Pontus, in today’s northern Turkey. There, it seems, he died; but not before writing a couple of puzzled letters back home to his master on what to do about those strange people called ‘Christians’. That was where we met him in an earlier volume.2
The present letter is remarkable in several ways. We know nothing more about the friend in question, one Sabinianus, except that he granted the request and earned himself a further letter from the great man, congratulating him on ‘accepting my authority – or, if you like, indulging my prayers’, and urging him to be ready for further acts of mercy even if there is nobody to make the case.3 But we know enough to see what’s going on. The freedman (in other words, a slave whom Sabinianus has freed but who is still clearly dependent on him) has got himself into trouble. Knowing Pliny to be a friend of his master, he has gone to him for help.
There then ensues a nice little comedy of manners, worthy almost of Jane Austen though without the dry humour. All three dancers retain their places in the implicit social hierarchy, with each making the moves appropriate to those places.
Pliny is at the top of the social pile, giving lordly instructions and emphasizing the fact by saying he’s only making a request. Sabinianus is in the middle, obviously in command of the freedman but presumably a little in awe of the great Pliny, and eager to maintain friendship with such a man.4 The freedman, who remains unnamed, is no longer a slave, but is nevertheless socially near the bottom of the pile, at the mercy of those above him. Pliny does what a man in his position might be expected to do, dispensing the philosophical and even psychological wisdom of the day: ‘Mercy looks even better when you’ve a right to be angry, but being angry is such torture for a gentle-hearted chap like you!’ He makes it clear that the freedman deserves anger, and that he himself has given him a good, menacing talking-to. The appeal is based on the man’s genuine repentance; but, despite the protestations that this appears genuine, Pliny’s subsequent warning indicates that he suspects it may not last. In saying one thing to the unfortunate freedman and another to Sabinianus he shows himself again the lofty master of the situation, playing the two others like a pair of (albeit very different) musical instruments.
Sabinianus, for his part, complies with Pliny’s command/request, which involves no social change. He is subservient to Pliny, but his forgiveness, conditional as it is upon the man’s present penitence and future good behaviour, leaves him even more obviously superior to the freedman than before. ‘He has not demeaned himself by pardoning an inferior (his freedman), because his action represents his fitting submission to a superior (Pliny).’5
The freedman himself, tearful and apparently penitent, and now further frightened by Pliny’s warnings, is, we may suppose, deeply grateful to them both. He is determined, at least until further notice or provocation, to know his place and to play the part of a well-behaved social inferior.
In terms of the customs of the time, the unnamed freedman was quite lucky. He was at least free, not a slave, even though the net result of that change may not have been very significant in real terms (he was presumably technically at liberty to leave Sabinianus and seek his fortune elsewhere, but many ex-slaves remained without the means to do such a thing).6 His master could have made life very unpleasant for him. He would not have faced the extreme danger of the runaway slave, but punishments and deprivations of many kinds might have awaited his projected return. All the more reason for him to go back with his tail between his legs and learn to lie low.
We move from Pliny’s world of carefully calibrated social distinctions into a very different universe. Roughly half way in time between the resurrection of Jesus and Pliny’s letter, we have another letter whose surface similarities mask a deep, disturbing dissimilarity. Here is its central core:
I have considerable boldness in the Messiah to command you to do the right thing, but I prefer to appeal on the basis of love, seeing as I am Paul, an elder and now also a prisoner of the Messiah, Jesus. I appeal to you about my child, whose father I have become in my imprisonment: Onesimus! Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful to you and to me. I’m sending him to you – sending the one who is my very heart. Actually, I would have liked to keep him here beside me, so that he could work for me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the royal announcement, but I didn’t want to do anything without your approval, so that your good deed wouldn’t be done, as it were, under compulsion, but willingly.
Perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a while, so that you could have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, but in human terms and in the lord.
So: if you count me as your partner, receive him as you would me. If he has wronged you or owes you anything, put it down on my account. I, Paul, will repay: I’m writing this with my own hand! (Not to mention the fact that you owe me your own very self …) Yes, brother, let me have some benefit from you in the lord! Refresh my heart in the Messiah.
I’m writing this fully confident of your obedience, and knowing that you will do more than I say. At the same time, get a guest room ready for me. I’m hoping, you see, that through your prayers I will be given to you as a gift …
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