Tag Archives: cultural status

Breaking Down Barriers

Matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers – Thursday, March 8, 2018

Philemon title, bible

Breaking Down Barriers

There are many separations or barriers between people today. Barriers of race, gender, color, class, birth, finances, status. Another way of looking at it is right side/wrong side of the tracks, rich/poor, have/have-not. Much less in terms of language(s) spoken, dialect or accent, educated or uneducated. What are we to do? What was Paul to do?

From what I could tell from some reading about Paul and his time and culture, Paul knew very well about these different kinds of cultural statuses and society structures. Sometimes, he would uphold them, and sometimes not. (I apologize beforehand to all Pauline scholars who may read this, and correct me. I fully enjoy learning more! So, please, let me know if I am mistaken.)

Prof. Williams talks about exactly this fact in one of his short chapters in Meeting God in Paul, starting with the mountain of a verse from Galatians 3:28, “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free man, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” “Here is Paul saying that there is something you can belong to in which all these different kinds of status are completely immaterial.” [1] Wow. What a statement for Paul to make, given the fairly strict rules and mores of his society. There was a little latitude and wiggle room, but not very much.

Reading this chapter of Williams’ little book, I was struck by the little book (actually, personal letter) of the apostle Paul to Philemon. Paul had obviously been friends with Philemon before, and was communicating long-distance. Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus had become acquainted with Paul in the distant town, and—by Paul’s own account—was now like a son to Paul. Now, Paul was writing to Philemon on Onesimus’s behalf: “11 At one time he was of no use to you, but now he is useful[b] both to you and to me.” (And, yes, I think Paul loved the word-play—“Onesimus” meant “useful.”)

Paul was breaking down barriers. Jesus broke down barriers, too. And, much more so than Paul. How marvelous that Jesus just plain disregarded societal structures and barriers, and welcomed everyone. We see Paul striving to do the same thing. His statement in Galatians 3 (as well as a similar one in Colossians 3) shows us that he is striving toward welcoming all, no matter what.

Dear God, thank You for Your extravagant welcome, breaking down all barriers.



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[1] Meeting God in Paul: Reflections for the Season of Lent, Rowan Williams (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 29.