Philemon 1-21 What is so important about Philemon?
The stakes could not be higher. If Onesimus returned home, Philemon could have him punished by having him whipped, burnt with iron, or killed. If he lived, he would be branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for fugitivus.
Slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood. Unlike Roman citizens, they could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation, torture, and execution depending entirely on the will of their master. It was an abhorrent system, a morally repugnant system, but it was embraced, accepted, and supported by Roman law.
We are not told why Onesimus ran away from his master Philemon. We don’t know if it was because Philemon was a cruel master or whether Onesimus just decided the adventure was worth the risk, a kind of first-century adrenalin junkie. Whatever the reason, Onesimus knew he was risking death by running away.
But now Onesimus is going to return to Philemon. Again, we are not told why. All we are told is that somewhere, somehow, Onesimus and Paul came together. We are told that Onesimus has become a believer in Jesus Christ, a follower in the faith. We are told it was Paul who lead him to be a Christian as Paul states, “I became his father in the faith during my time in prison.”
Paul had also been the person who brought the Good News to Philemon. Now Paul is pleading with Philemon to either let Onesimus stay with Paul or else accept the escaped slave back not as a slave but as a brother in Christ. We are not told how this story ends. We do not know what Philemon’s reaction was or what his answer was. We are just left hanging.
So what in the world does this story have to do with us and the world we live in? How does this text help us to work out our own salvation or offer us a way of becoming better disciples of our Lord? In fact, why is this book in the Bible in the first place? Why has this letter been preserved as Scripture and made authoritative by the Church?
I had to ask myself these questions. What would God have me say to you about this passage? Certainly, God didn’t just want me to go over this story like some historical drama played out by actors who have very little relevance to our lives. What is so important about Philemon?
First, this letter tells us how an encounter with Jesus can transform a person. Both Philemon and Onesimus have been changed by the Good News. Philemon is called a co-worker by Paul and has a church meeting in his home. Onesimus, a person on the run, a slave, puts himself in danger by being a caring, physical presence, and support for Paul while Paul is in prison. This was taking a big chance. This would be like a person with a wanted poster on the wall visiting a friend in the police station.
Both of these individuals are giving of themselves to the work of God. Onesimus had found true freedom in Jesus even though he is a slave and Philemon has found something much more valuable than his earthly wealth. But that is not all this passage is about.
You see, this passage is also about the struggle Christians face in this world that is fallen and deceptive. It is a reminder this world will put us in situations where living out our faith can be difficult.
Paul is struggling with the issue of sending Onesimus back to Philemon even though Paul knows this is the law. Paul has developed a dependence upon Onesimus. Paul has developed a caring paternal-like relationship with the runaway slave. Paul understands he could be sending Onesimus back to a very unpleasant reception or even death.
How often do we have to struggle between doing what we know is right and doing what we want even if we know it is wrong? How easy it can be to find some way to justify what we want in order to not feel guilty. Still, all the justifications and excuses in the world cannot make a wrong into a right.
Now, the account seems to indicate that Onesimus is willing to go back even though he knows he risks an uncertain fate. He knows he has broken the law. As a believer, he understands that God will be with him, but he also knows what happened to Jesus, many of the disciples, and others who faced the reality of this world. He does not know how Philemon will react.
It is very Pollyannaish and foolish not to believe that bad things can happen to us. You can know you are in the right, confident what you are doing is good, and still have situations turn against you. I know this well from experience. A few years, well more than a few now, I found out about a huge fraud. I report it, was vilified and sued for $10 million dollars. The case was dropped after the statute of limitations had run out on the individual who committed the act, but when I questioned the lawyer about where the justice was, he told me, “If I wanted justice to watch TV.”
Then there is Philemon. Philemon has to struggle with his own feelings, does he forgive and embrace or does he exercise his rights under Roman law? Is Philemon’s faith strong enough, real enough, to make a decision that goes against his culture, a decision that likely would be considered both foolish and dangerous by Roman authorities? If Philemon forgives and embraces Onesimus after he had broken the law and run away, is he not setting a dangerous precedent and example that could influence the behavior of other slaves?
There will always be those situations in life where there are no easy sure answers. Times that we are not sure of what we must do. Even though Paul is pleading and using every possible argument he can think of, the decision lies not with Paul but with Philemon.
Human beings, even faithful, committed, and spiritual human beings, can still make wrong choices and even believe they can justify their choices as God’s will. God does not force human responses.
A Sunday school teacher was asking her students some questions after a series of lessons on God’s omnipotence. She asked, “Is there anything God can’t do?” All was silent. Finally, one boy held up his hand. The teacher, on seeing this, was disappointed that this child had missed the point of the lesson. She sighed and asked, “Well, what is it you think God can’t do?” The boy replied, “He can’t please everybody.”
God cannot please everybody and God does not will God try to control everybody. Faith is about our trusting God and seeking to do what is best knowing we can and will make mistakes. However, faith is also knowing, that whatever the outcome, God is with us.
This leads us to the third thing this passage should teach us. Sometimes walking in faith and trusting God, requires us to put our lives in God’s hands even though we do not know what the immediate results will be. God never promises we will not have trouble. God never guarantees that the outcome will always be favorably determined by how our culture interprets favorable. There are times when we must just do what we know we should do. Times when we must trust God in the long run over the short run. Times when we have to hold on to our Lord’s promise that he will never leave us or forsake us whatever we face.
We don’t know how this story turns out. But we do know that all things work toward good for those who love the Lord. We do know God is with us in the easy times and the hard times. We know what is important is our faith, for our faith will determine how our story ends.