When life hands you Philemons…


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Ezra 4:7, 11-24, Philemon 1-25, Matthew 12:33-42

The Letter to Philemon is not only the shortest of Paul’s epistles, but the third-shortest book in the Bible.  It’s shorter than any of the devotional posts on this blog. It isn’t written to an entire congregation, but to a single person. It doesn’t contain grand theological arguments, but a simple request.

Though the underlying premise of the letter has been debated by some, we traditionally consider Philemon to be the owner of a runaway slave named Onesimus who befriended Paul during the period he was under house arrest in Rome. Paul convinced Onesimus to return to Philemon bearing this letter which asked Philemon to accept the slave as a brother in Christ. Paul, reflecting the character of Christ, was even willing to assume any debts Onesimus might owe that he might escape punishment.

Paul was asking both parties to do something incredibly challenging: to see each other not as cogs in the cultural machine, but as human beings deserving the dignity of any beloved child of God. Philemon had to overcome the  idea that, no matter what the law allowed, Onesimus was his equal in Christ. And Onesimus had to risk his continued freedom on the hope that Philemon was capable of what Paul was asking.

This situation encapsulates what seems to be a fundamental flaw in human nature: we are capable of dismissing entire categories of people as less than fully human. Slavery, which exists to this day, is predicated on this flaw. It’s not a liberal or conservative bias; consider the flurry of recent revelations of sexual harassment by media and other executives across the political spectrum. Communication on social media becomes more and more like reputational target practice. Examples abound.

This phenomenon has an unfortunately circular nature: because we can’t see everyone as human, we don’t believe they see us as human, which reinforces our negative assessment of them, which in turn reinforces their negative assessment of us, and so on…

Paul could have used his influence to strong-arm Philemon into complying with his wishes. While he wasn’t above using a little guilt (“I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”), he knew that trusting Philemon to grow in his own understanding of Christ’s love would make for a permanent change that pressure would not. It may seem unfair of Paul to impose on Onesimus to test this theory, but he was also free to obey Paul or not. Imagine the trust – in Paul, Philemon, and God – necessary to return.

When we are at odds  with people, we can seek victory or peace. One requires us to see others as losers – something physically, spiritually, or intellectually lesser than ourselves – and the other demands we see others as beloved equals. Which would Christ have us pursue?

Comfort: God isn’t worried about what other people think of you.

Challenge: Vulnerability is a risk we all must take.

Prayer: For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” (Psalm 122:8)

Discussion: Are you more aware of your own tendencies to discriminate (we all have them!) or of how you suspect other people might discriminate against you?

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