We may think that the battle for human rights is a contemporary issue, but that would not be true. Every society has a structure which determines human value. For some you must only scratch lightly on the surface to discover the rank and file of human worth. For others you must dig deeply to find where those measurements of worth are established. It appears as an undercurrent across the pages of Scripture and rises to the surface frequently. Perhaps most surprisingly it is the central issue of a very small and highly personal letter from the evangelist Paul to Philemon, a man whose runaway slave, Onesismus, has somehow ended up in service to Paul. More often than not, those who read this letter let their focus rest on the grand theme of forgiveness which is certainly Paul’s most prominent reason for sending the wayward Onesimus back to his master. But the forgiveness of Onesismus is clearly counter-cultural! Paul’s challenge to Philemon aims to determine whether or not Philemon will follow His Lord over and above what society would prescribe in dealing with a slave. Will he forgive as Christ forgave, or will he remain stuck in his cultural boundaries like the King of Siam?
A further look at life in New Testament times is beneficial in helping us to see just how unusual Paul’s request is. The structure of Roman society was very apparent to those who lived in it. Divisions of people were designated by both religion and economy. In the religious arena the main division was that of Jew and Non-Jew (i.e. Greek). Onesimus’ value was attached to the economic structure which placed women (of non-wealth status), children and slaves on the lowest level of society with a non-person status. In other words, they had no value whatsoever. Ironically the name Onesimus which was a common name for male slaves and means “useful” really had nothing to do with designating his worth as a person. Rather it served to remind him that if he did not live up to his name his master would not think twice about doing away with him. In Philemon’s case his “useful” slave had proved “useless” and all the more so by committing some sort of crime against his master and then fleeing the scene to escape punishment.
How or when Onesimus came into contact with Paul after this incident is unknown, but it is most certainly something that only God the Father could orchestrate. Philemon lives in Colossae. Paul is in Rome. The two cities are separated by thousands of miles! We learn in Paul’s letter that the Gospel has touched Onesimus as it has his master (Phile. 1:10) and since his conversion, the slave has taken such good care of Paul, he is now indispensible (vv. 11-13). But the sin of his past must be dealt with and Paul returns him to his legal owner bearing a letter and what a letter! Paul asks Philemon to do something that was culturally inconceivable. Instead of punishing Onesimus as was his legal right to do, Paul suggests that Philemon forgive him and return him to Paul (vv.8-9, 17-18) with Paul incurring the debt for Onesimus’ indiscretion (v. 18). Paul’s argument in essence claims each person in the triad has been forgiven much. Paul, Philemon and Onesimus all owe a debt of gratitude to Jesus for His sacrificial death on the cross (vv. 6, 19). Christ’s death assigns great value to each of them, therefore, each one is to behave as Christ and treat the others with the same sense of value. The heart of forgiveness knows that each person is of the highest worth because Christ died for all (Jn. 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 3:18).
If you are harboring an unforgiving spirit towards another person, perhaps it is time to look at the perimeters you place on human worth. Are you bound by cultural chains or a selfish sense of pride over your own “rights” as a person? If so remember Jesus’ admonition to Peter in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt. 18:21-35) and determine to set your mind and will in the direction of forgiveness as Philemon was challenged to do (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:12-13).
Ann H. LeFevre
Week of 11/22/2015