On Sunday, I talked about the letter to Philemon. In that letter, Paul writes to Philemon, a church leader and businessman, asking him to welcome back Onesimus, a slave who likely had taken money and run away.
It’s a well-crafted letter appealing to the spiritual values of life. Paul reminds Philemon of Paul’s role in Philemon’s faith, and says that Onesimus has experienced the same transformation following the teaching of Paul and the work of God that Philemon had. Paul asks Philemon to treat Onesimus the way he would treat Paul if Paul showed up. And Paul does it in a way that is awesome when considered from a persuasion perspective.
But this wasn’t simply about persuasion. Paul was elevating this to a conversation about the relationship all three of them had with God. And that matters because Paul was asking Philemon to take a step that made no sense culturally, economically, or relationally.
Paul’s asking him to treat a slave like a brother, implying that in this case, the punishment for running away should be freedom. For Philemon’s business colleagues this may have been an unforgivable precedent, teaching that everyone should run away and be forgiven for it. Teaching that everyone should just say they trust Jesus.
And there would have been disruption for in church, which would have included slaves and masters. Everyone in this small congregation knew that Onesimus was a runaway, was a thief, had sat in the back of this congregation with them, had sinned in front of them. For Philemon to welcome Onesimus back would affect everyone he knew, every relationship he was part of.
Philemon had to count the cost, as Jesus said. Philemon was being invited to love God so much that in comparison, he hated his family and his position and his belongings and his life.
What’s highly likely is this. That Philemon said yes. It’s why a personal letter would be preserved and now published. NOT as an example of a particularly persuasive letter. NOT as an example of a Hallmark movie. But as an example of how much God can transform lives.