Living up to the letter

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. — Philemon 1-25

Back in the mists of time, back when I was growing up, there were certain television shows that my parents wouldn’t miss. One was Lawrence Welk on Saturday nights and the other was Perry Como. He had a very pleasant voice and interesting people on his program, but the thing I remember most was a tune that had the lyrics, “Letters, we get letters/ we get stacks, stacks, stacks of letters,/ dear Perry, would you be so kind/ to fill my request and sing the song I like best?”

With Paul, we have letters, we have fragments of letters, and we have mis-attributed letters (or at least, letters from his associates, signed with his name to lend veracity and weight to what they wrote). We have stacks of letters, but we also only have one side of the equation. What provoked (or promoted) the letters we don’t really always understand, and so we are left hoping we’re reading them right or, at least, not mis-reading them.

James Kiefer, in his biographical sketch, drew the picture of a worried Onesimus hanging over Paul’s shoulder, knowing that his fate might well rest on what Paul wrote to the man from whom Onesimus had fled. Meanwhile, Paul writes words that would do Tony Soprano proud. Poor Philemon, no matter what he did he couldn’t win. Philemon was a worm on a hook and he probably knew it as soon as he opened the letter.

I wonder — what would I do if I got a letter like that? I’m not talking about one from the sheriff’s tax enforcement force reminding me that if I don’t pay my property tax I could lose my house but rather one from a friend and mentor telling me that I need to do something that goes against the grain, to not just forgive someone who has wronged or harmed me but to welcome them back into my house and my life. Oy, that’s a tall order, but it’s one that is fully compatible with the teachings of Jesus, Paul’s boss. Paul’s letter to Philemon might have been a more-or-less gentle twist of the arm (or an iron hand in a velvet glove), but Jesus was a bit more direct about forgiveness and the requirement for it.

I wonder how it all turned out. Did Paul ever get to use Philemon’s guest room? Did Onesimus receive the welcome Paul wanted for him? Did Philemon maybe fall a little short of killing the fatted calf for his returning slave-now-brother or did he accept that the whole relationship had changed?

Now I have to ask myself — am I Onesimus or Philemon? Am I the wronged or the one who wronged? Am I asked to be forgiving or to forgive? Am I a slave or am I free?

I just know that if I’m in trouble, I hope Jesus writes as good a letter for me as Paul did for Onesimus. Somehow, I think he would, no matter what. Then all I would have to do would be to live up to the letter.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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