Monday, December 08, 2003


Role Models

This the sixth essay in a series covering Paul's letter to Philemon.

Many study guides and commentators like to draw a parallel between Philemon and Jesus, Onesimus and ourselves. Such a comparison is useful, but I think it misses the main points of this book, which flow from the character qualities of Onesimus, Philemon, and Paul and without which the popular commentating would not be possible.

Onesimus - Became a Christian and was willing to return and accept the consequences of his actions, which may have been severe. This is what I call being radically saved. While Paul pondered how to help, Onesimus with a free will served Paul as a slave. I believe the character that Paul saw in the young man prompted him to seek his freedom. The good will showed to Paul and a lack of guile carried the day. Paul apparently also saw that Onesimus could become a free friend of his old master. This means that Paul saw no underlying bitterness or grudges. Onesimus accepted the wrong that he had done, was sorry, wanted to make it right, and placed no blame on his master. How often do we see such a change of attitude?

Onesimus is the model for Christian repentance and restitution to God and man.

Philemon - He was known for his ability to love others at cost to himself. He too was radically saved. Paul saw in him the ability to forgive Onesimus and to make the shift to freeing one who had wronged him. The problem with saying that Philemon is like Christ is that it elevates him so that he is no longer a model for how we should behave! One of the points of this book is that we should be able to forgive and elevate someone who has wronged us. This entire book is about going beyond accepted levels of mercy. Everyone of the following choices were legitimate for him:

  • Level 0: Philemon has Onesimus beaten or executed for stealing and running away. By this Philemon maintains discipline in the household and does not create any concerns among his slave owning friends and neighbors.
  • Level 1: Philemon accepts Onesimus back into his service without any punishment. He maintains discipline and creates only moderate concern for his neighbors.
  • Level 2: Philemon accepts Onesimus back into his service without any punishment and gives him his freedom when he has worked to repay the money he had stolen. Philemon might loose some control in his household and his neighbors might express some concern.
  • Level 3: Philemon frees Onesimus and sends him on his way. He will now have to pay close attention to his other slaves, many of whom are claiming that they, too, now have faith is Jesus the Messiah. His neighbors are furious.
  • Level 4: Philemon frees Onesimus and seeks friendship. There is no predicting how either his household or the neighbors will react. This course is outside their grid. For the slaves, conversions will tend to be real. The choice is too far fetched to affect the neighbors, who might think Philemon a bit crazy. Note that Onesimus at this juncture has the freedom to re-bind himself to Philemon as a bond-servant. a bind-servant in those days was a voluntary and permanent state of servitude. By this Onesimus would have, in love, helped out Philemon. Philemon, at this point, might also have returned his bond-servant, Onesimus, to Paul to help make his imprisonment more comfortable.
  • Level 5: Philemon frees Onesimus, they become friends, and Philemon provides the capital for Onesimus to start a business. Again, being beyond most people's imagination, the negative effects would not arise.

And so it could go on. Note that Paul's expectation was that Philemon would go beyond what Paul had asked. Is it not interesting that going beyond is one way to avert the negative effects of doing only just enough. And, to bring Jesus into it, is this not what our Father has done for us. we have wronged him and he has made us heirs of His Son.

Philemon is the model for Christian love and forgiveness.

Paul - I would like to be as wise as Paul. To be able to discern the possibilities in a complex human situation and effectively and succinctly guide a satisfactory conclusion is a great gift. To be sure, he was working with good material on both sides, but he was able to know that he had good material. I do not think that Paul was making a general case for Christian masters freeing Christian slaves--although the letter opens that door. Rather Paul shows us that he was able to look at a situation and seek the highest possible good.  We, on the other hand, tend to like simple rules, because they save time and they are safe. We prefer things like: If a slave runs away, he should be returned to his master who should show mercy appropriate to the situation. Paul saw the possibility of greater things and pressed for them with great skill.

Paul is the model for Christian pastoring.

And so we close this book. That we have it to this day tells us that Philemon did all that Paul had asked and more. It tells us that word about Onesimus and Philemon spread among the churches and that copies of this letter circulated broadly. As you you read it from now on ask yourself, "To whom must I return to make right a wrong that I have done?" "What people want and need my forgiveness and how can I bring them into free and open friendship with me again?" "How can I help two estranged parties choose the right thing?" Success is not guaranteed, but sometimes it will be there beyond our best hopes.

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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