Last week, we discussed the opening verses of Philemon. We talked of Paul’s physical and/or mental imprisonment (which we find out this week was at least physical, surprising no one given how often Paul was jailed for preaching the gospel). We talked of Jesus being our light in the dark and how He overflows us so we can pour into others. A lot of good stuff that we all need to hear at some point. But this week, we have something we didn’t have last week: a story that provides context.
We learn in 1:8-20 that Philemon had a slave named Onesimus, who escaped. (Being from the South, I’m no longer surprised when I learn a guy in history, who seemed nice enough at first, condoned or participated in owning other people.) When out of there, Onesimus found Paul and then he found Jesus. Paul is now sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter, asking him to accept him back as the brother he is and not the slave he was. In verse 8, Paul says this is Philemon’s “duty,” but in verse 9, he says he “would rather appeal to [Philemon] on the basis of love…”
There are so many ways this could’ve gone badly. I marvel at the faith Onesimus must’ve had in God and, honestly, in Paul to return to the man who would’ve viewed him as lost property until reading Paul’s letter. He would’ve known Philemon in a way Paul wouldn’t, but believed enough to go through with this, and I am in awe of that.
Paul is both direct and indirect in how he wants Philemon to treat Onesimus upon his return. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you may have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother– especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (vs. 15-16, NRSV). This is clear and straightforward. Paul expects Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother since they now are brothers through Christ. (Plus that whole thing about loving everyone that Jesus talked about, I’m sure.) Because of salvation, they will spend eternity together as brothers, so Onesimus will be with him forever.
What’s clever to me is how Paul indicates that Philemon should no longer treat Onesimus as a slave by how he is not treating Philemon. “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced” (vs. 13-14, NRSV). Paul could’ve kept this from Philemon. Most people would’ve. But by sending Onesimus back, Paul is causing Philemon to see Onesimus as a man (specifically a man of God) instead of property. He is leading by example when it would’ve been beyond reasonable in Paul’s case to act otherwise, whereas it would be entirely wrong for Philemon not to follow Paul’s example in his situation.
Paul says his love for Onesimus is vast and proves it by doing what Jesus did for us: took his place and his debt. “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (vs. 17-18, NRSV). It’s very least-of-these, isn’t it? This is Paul directly following Jesus in standing with and loving the marginalized. This is Paul loving his fellow man as Jesus loves him.
The book of Philemon is about redemption, both Onesimus’s and Philemon’s. We know for certain that Onesimus received his redemption– salvation– but we are left hoping and assuming that Philemon redeemed himself through the love of Christ by treating Onesimus as the man he was and not the object Philemon once viewed him as. We can only hope that Philemon did as Paul asked and, in doing so, began treating all people as people. Philemon may have been doing a lot for the Church, but there was more for him to do and far more for him to learn, and Paul’s letter hopefully helped him see that.
By Carrie Prevette