Paul envisioned Christianity as totally transforming not only for the individual but in social structures (like slavery). This message of reconciliation depicted on the cross of Christ is found in this letter to Philemon by presenting an encouraging story. The letter is not unlike the stories with a similar message found in the books of Ruth or Esther. Philemon shows an even more intimate side of God towards personal matters. It is an example of how a thoroughgoing God (and in turn through Paul) makes himself small enough for the intimate details of our lives.
This letter (Paul’s shortest one) does not specifically mention Jesus’s second coming. Like the books of Esther and the Song of Songs that do not mention God, the advent of Jesus, however, is in the background. It’s a story about a slave, Onesimus, who appears to have run away from his master, then has second thoughts. Paul acts as a mediator, interceding for the slave, and asks the Philemon to take the slave back without punishment and accept him as a brother in Christ. It reminds me of humankind trying to run from our true Lord and Master. Jesus intercedes for us and paid the price (like Paul who offers to repay the slave’s master [Phlm. 1:18-19]).
“Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Phlm. 1:16) and “He was parted from you for a while that you might have him back forever” (Phlm. 1:15) are verses with an undercurrent of meaning about Jesus. He is the bondservant of mankind, who Jesus incarnate was and will be again upon His return.
In this letter, Philemon can be described as probably being converted under Paul’s teachings. He lived in the nearby city of Colossae and the letter was written about the same time as the letter to the Colossians. It serves as part of the defense (the apologetic) against how the Bible views slavery. Slavery in the context of biblical times was never as harsh as it was during the Civil War era. There was also the mandate of the seven-year remission of slavery found in Exodus 21:2 that gave relief.
One interpretation of the last of the prison letters is that Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus escaped from his master/owner and traveled to Rome from Colossae. It does not say how or explains the circumstances of the meet up with Paul. Paul was instrumental, “in the midwiving the birth of these souls, Onesimus and Philemon (echoing poet John O’Donahue’s beautiful words) for Christ. This conversion of faith was so powerful that it gave Onesimus courage to carry a personal letter back to his master. Runaway slaves were to be dealt with punishment if not the death sentence. Paul implored Philemon to honor and foster the kindness and forgiveness principles of faith to his slave and accept him in a brotherly kinship. Paul implored Philemon in his letter to forgive Onesimus’s of his slave debt and treat him as a brother in Christ. Both men were gently encouraged in their Christian relationship toward one another. Philemon receives him back and sets him free. Onesimus’s name means “useful”.
That’s not the last we hear of Onesimus in the NT. He is referenced in Colossians 4:9. And historical records show a Saint Onesimus. It seems like after his emancipation he went back to serve Paul and then, after Paul’s death, served the other apostles. A Bishops list that follows the line of leaders of the Ephesus church, shows Onesimus’s name right after Timothy’s. Onesimus became the Bishop of this church. His is a beautiful story of restoration from slave to a bishop that can only happen through God’s economy.
The words of this letter demonstrate the life-changing power of the Gospel in just one of many social conditions of society. It is how relationships can change for the good. In other eras, there have been similar examples of slaves being freed (through manumission), some chose to stay and continue to serve their former masters.
This letter is an interesting play on the words enslaved and imprisoned by comparing them to sin and forgiveness, not just for Philemon but for Onesimus and Paul as well.
Theologian Lewis Smedes writes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” That portion of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:14-15) to forgive those who hurt or treated me unfairly (trespasses) as God forgives me of mine is a reminder of the state of our heart.
I think about those I try to forgive for conning, scamming, gaslighting, stealing or telling lies to me. It is easy to say I forgive someone, but it still takes time to get through the forgetting part. I have had encounters with specifically three people who left invisible but indelible marks on me by the show of their sociopath mrks. I faced the grim reality of being spammed, had money stolen from me or intentionally mislead to a dashed career promise (after leaving the previous job). With a one, I had hoped their disingenuous behavior was left in the past but in the end it wasn’t. I do not use the word sociopath flippantly. Sociopaths (different from psychopaths who tend to be more physically dangerous) are people who chose to live their life in such a way that they superficially appear as high functioning in society. It is a personality disorder manifesting in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior lacking conscience, remorse, empathy or guilt. Sociopaths often continue repeatedly in their antisocial way of doing life, always a few steps ahead of their prey.
I cannot help but reflect on that line from Shakespeare’s play Richard III when I think of these kinds of people wondering why they chose their path to hurt others. Richard justified his cruel actions by saying, “Since I can’t amuse myself by being a lover (his deformity was something that others thought so repulsive that he never found a mate), I’ve decided to become a villain.”
My initial desired response, when victimized by this behavior, is to strike back in kind to that person, but better judgment overrules me. Vindictiveness takes too much out of me. Instead, I leave the vengeance in God’s hands that He deems needs to be done. When I ruminate on it too long, I pray for them. Reflecting on his horrendous holocaust experiences, Austrian neurologist an psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (author of Man’s Search for Meaning ca 1946) recalled, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.
While being part of the Stephen Ministers group, a tragedy occurred. The leader of that group (who initiated it) performed a good valuable service by offering this type of ministry for the church. One day we received the tragic news of the leader’s suicide. The group was dumbfounded and remorseful that here we were trained to watch for the signs of mental duress when working with people in crisis, and did not see this coming. Suicide has a lingering false stigma of being the unforgivable sin thought in days gone by. It’s not. It was thought so because there is no opportunity to repent of this sin after a person commits it. The stigma was such that for a period of time, suicides were buried separately from others in the graveyard. The only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
During the funeral, Pastor explained that God knew our friend’s heart, and He also knows that mental illness can cloud a person’s judgment so much that they are not fully responsible for their actions. King Saul suffered mental illness. Remember how he initially hid when he was about to be anointed (1Sam. 10:22) king? That should have been a foreshadowing of his insecurity and its future impact on his reign as King. He went in and out of madness, but he had his moments of lucidness. Did God make a poor first choice for the king? No, He would have equipped Saul for what needed to be done. Saul instead listened to his demons.
When David had the opportunity to kill King Saul who was pursuing him to destroy, he didn’t succumb to the urge. Saul said,
“Is this your voice, my son David?” Then Saul lifted his voice and wept. He said to David, “You are more righteous than I,” he said. “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly. You have just now told me about the good you did to me; the Lord delivered me into your hands, but you did not kill me. When a man finds his enemy, does he let him get away unharmed? May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today. I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands. Now swear to me by the Lord that you will not kill off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father’s family.” (1Sam. 24:17-22)
The concept of forgiving is nice to contemplate, but in practice, it’s a different story. I can more readily forgive on the grounds of mental illness when there is no other explanation nor repentance. Once in confidence, a teaching colleague and I discussed working with a volunteer who would make outlandish demands and would misconstrue situations (the context of this was money raised at a fundraiser [partly through her efforts] that she considered hers to direct to a chosen ministry versus the predetermined stated cause). The teacher then shared that she and her husband, the principal, observed this woman when she was a student in school with similar outbursts arose. Over time it became more and more apparent that the student’s family were at her side frequently when she worked in a public setting to help smooth things through. I could not deny the woman was not a hard worker and very creative. Once I understand the behavior, that I had formed the wrong opinion. I took the judgment back as was the case with this woman.
I read somewhere about a person forgiving someone yet at the same time still being able to see through them. I observe in precaution to not continually make myself vulnerable for more of the same offense from same offenders. My survival instincts tell me to not get too close to my known tormentors. I guess I am better now at recognizing my enemy. The act of forgiveness does not deny that a wrong has taken place. At times, I have told people I forgive them even when I didn’t feel it. I did it to lay the groundwork and start the ball rolling to that end.