Written by Pastor Ed
From Outlaw to Brother
September 28, 2014
Books of the bible – Philemon
Actions have consequences. I’m sure you all agree with that. And sometimes actions now can have consequences long into the future, or seemingly small events can have major consequences. I just recently finished reading a book on WWI which argued that the assassination of Francis Ferdinand was in many ways a minor incident that should not have caused the disaster that followed. Yet it set off a sequence of events that are still affecting us even 100 years later.
There are those who suggest that such sequences of events are inevitable, and yet we know that they don’t have to be. A change of heart, an apology, a determination not to do what everyone expects; any of those things can make a huge difference in what happens next.
It was just such a change that prompted the short letter from Paul to Philemon which is the focus of our Books of the Bible series today. The story is partly intriguing for what we don’t know, but let’s look briefly at what we do know. Onesimus was a slave, or perhaps more precisely a run-away slave. There is some speculation that he even stole some property or money in the process of leaving his master, Philemon.
And then somewhere along the way, many presume in Ephesus which would have been one of the major cities nearby, Onesimus, the slave, became a Christian and met up with Paul. Whether Paul’s preaching was what convinced Onesimus or not ,we don’t know, but it is clear that Onesimus became a part of Paul’s company of travelers for he shows up in several letters and is called a “faithful and beloved brother” at the end of Colossians. It appears that the letter to the Colossians and this letter to Philemon were sent together since the same people show up both in the greetings and the closing of each of them.
In any case, Onesimus along with Tychicus are now sent to deliver these letters to the church at Colossae and to Philemon. Now while Paul declares that Onesimus has been useful to him and he wanted to keep him, he was also obligated by law to return a runaway slave to their rightful owner. But the letter asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not as an outlaw – a runaway slave who would undoubtedly face a harsh penalty if not death, but rather as a brother in the church. For, Paul says, he will now be useful to you; a play on the name Onesimus in Greek.
Paul begins with the usual greetings and thanksgivings to Philemon and others and recalls the relationship they had. Philemon was a Christian and evidently a leader in the church at Colossae. And then Paul gets around to the point of the letter. Now numerous commentators remark on the tact and love which Paul uses in writing to Philemon. Knox calls this “one of the most skillful letters ever written” while others have called is “a gem unique” or infinitely precious.”
And Paul makes clear that while he could pull rank and command Philemon to take Onesimus back, he wants Philemon to do so not because he is commanded to, but out of genuine Christian love. Yet it seems to me that Paul is not above a little friendly persuasion. He is very clear that he considers Onesimus a brother in Christ, and that he would have preferred to keep Onesimus with him. But knowing his obligations, he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, suggesting that there was even a divine plan in what happened.
He offers to pay anything Onesimus may owe Philemon – and reminds Philemon of the debt Philemon owes to Paul for saving him, perhaps recalling Jesus parable of the unforgiving servant who was forgiven a great debt by his master but then was unwilling to forgive a smaller debt owed by a fellow servant. And just to make sure Philemon follows through on the request, Paul adds a “by the way” – make up a room for me, I plan to visit when I get out of jail. Not commands, just subtle hints!
It’s a nice little story of someone, Onesimus, who experienced a change in their life by becoming a Christian, of Paul who spoke up for Onesimus, pleading his case to another Christian brother, and presumably a former master who received Onesimus back graciously.
But there is a coda to the story that we often don’t hear about. As Paul Harvey used to say, it’s the “rest of the story.” Some 40 years after this letter from Paul to Philemon was written, Ignatius, a leader in the early church wrote a letter to the church at Ephesus thanking them for their hospitality as he traveled on his way to Rome to meet the lions. In particular he has high praise for the elderly bishop of Ephesus, a certain Onesimus!
While there is no clear proof that this is the same person, there is much to suggest that it is. It would explain why this personal letter to Philemon was so well preserved. There are the same word plays on the name Onesimus in both letters, and while Onesimus was a common slave name, it was much less common among freeman. So most scholars conclude that this former slave, once in danger of harsh punishment for running away from his master, was received back as a brother on Paul’s encouragement, and became a beloved and influential bishop of Ephesus, one of the centers of the early church.
I’m sure all of us have had experiences of meeting someone whose past is perhaps questionable. One of the discussions we often have at our local Marda Loop ministerial meetings is about people who show up at our church doors asking for help. Are they really persons in need, or are they among those who only seek to get by on handouts? What about former prisoners who claim to have changed their lives?
Are we willing to give them a chance, or perhaps even go to bat for them? Would we be willing to write a letter on their behalf or even take on their debt as Paul seemed willing to do, although Philemon surely knew that Paul had no assets with which to pay, after all he was in prison himself.
In one congregation I pastored a member of the congregation was serving time in prison because he had been a member of a cult which had brutally murdered one of their own members, who had also been a member of the congregation I pastored and the foster son of a congregational family. This all happened prior to my coming to the congregation but the effects were still very much in evidence. I visited David regularly in prison and came to know him as a sincere brother and so spoke positively for him at his parole hearing.
I don’t think he has gone on to become a bishop, or even a pastor. And I don’t know what difference if any my speaking on his behalf had; he didn’t get parole and it got me in trouble with those who opposed his parole. But perhaps that’s not the point. The point is we don’t often know what the consequences of our actions will be, but I am certain that positive actions, a good word for someone, forgiveness rather than a punishment, will have an effect down the road.
And that’s true not just in cases like runaway slaves, which we rarely run into these days, but also in the lives of ordinary people, of children among us, and even of casual people we meet. You’ve probably seen the TV ad where someone holds the door open for another, who then picks up something someone dropped, and that person then does a good deed for the next person, and so forth. Or you’ve heard the stories of paying it forward, paying the toll for the person behind you. I was standing in line at a Tim’s in the airport once when a young woman in line asked me what I was ordering and said she had a voucher for far more than she was going to spend and offered to buy my order as well. I felt good the rest of the day!
We have no guarantee that our actions will lead to someone becoming great or good. But neither do we know when something we think might be insignificant will play a major role in someone’s life or lead to remarkable change. The Spirit of God moves in mysterious ways, God’s wonders to perform. We are only vehicles through which the Spirit can touch lives. Paul was such a person in the life of Onesimus, and even Philemon. Who will we touch by our actions?