Reflecting on Philemon 9, 10, 12-17
How are you at the art of gentle persuasion? Do you need some help getting a child to eat her broccoli, or an elderly parent to give up his car keys? Read Paul’s letter to Philemon, found towards the end of the New Testament. In just 445 words, Paul gives a tutorial on how to gently but firmly get someone to do the right thing.
Philemon owned the home where the earliest Christians of Colossus (in modern-day Turkey) gathered. He was certainly a faithful follower of Jesus, and yet he appears to have owned a slave, a young man named Onesimus. As far back as St. John Chrysostom (347-407), this letter has been used to either justify or vilify slavery because Paul is coaxing a slave-owner into taking back his slave as a free man.
Onesimus has left Philemon’s household and has become a companion to Paul during his imprisonment, probably in Ephesus in the mid-‘50s. Onesimus has become a devout Christian, so beloved of Paul that he calls him “my own heart”. Paul has a deep love for both slave-owner and slave because they have both been “co-workers” with him in proclaiming the gospel.
Paul’s authority over those early churches stands in the background of this warm letter. He could command Philemon to take Onesimus back and not exact the accepted punishment for runaway slaves (cutting off a leg). But he wants the authority of Christ to override his own. He is persuading Philemon to do that hardest of all things: to allow Christ to change his behavior, even when his culture encourages him to do the opposite.
That’s the great challenge for us today.
Are you currently working on coaxing someone to change a behavior?