UpFront with Mary Hendricks, 09/04/2016

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

September 4, 2016

Philemon 9-10, 12-17


With only 25 verses, Paul’s letter to Philemon would take you only minutes to read. It is the only letter written to an individual, and it’s an interesting, passionate, personal plea for a slave’s life…an appeal for mercy.

Philemon is a prominent leader in the Christian community, most likely a young man, who has a home church. At the letter’s opening, Paul commends Philemon for his love of Christ and of the “holy ones” under his care, as well as for his faith.

Paul is in prison as he writes this letter, probably in Rome. He was instrumental in Philemon’s conversion, it is believed, so Paul says he has the right to make a request of his protégé. He declares he will not order Philemon to consent to the request but asks him to comply “out of love.” What does Paul want?

Well, here’s the back story. Philemon owned Onesimus, a slave, whose name means “useful.” Owning slaves wasn’t unusual in the ancient world. Some were captives from wars; some were paying off debts owed; some were born into slavery. They were considered property, not persons, and they could be sold or traded at will.

Onesimus may have stolen money from Philemon, but, in any case, he ran away from his owner’s home. A fugitive in Rome, he heard Paul preaching and became a Christian. Paul became a father figure to him and was an important part of his ministry.

From his prison cell, Paul calls himself “an old man,” perhaps to imply even more authority or seniority over Philemon. He tells his friend that he is sending Onesimus back to him, even though he’d rather Onesimus stayed in Rome to assist him, maybe as a “go-fer” or a fellow evangelist. “Sending him back”? Philemon didn’t send him in the first place! The guy was a runaway! By rights, a thief should stand trial or, in some way, be punished for his crime. Paul does not want that for Onesimus. But, Paul says, “I don’t want to force you into anything. Seriously. Let this be voluntary on your part. Welcome him as your would me.”

Oh, wow. Welcome a thief back into the household and treat him as a brother and partner? He is asking that Philemon forget about the crime, the escape, and the class status of Onesimus. “Treat him like a brother in Christ, not a slave.” That’s a huge favor Paul is asking for.

What did Philemon do? Apparently, he stepped up to the challenge to be a Christian in the truest sense of the word: “Love others as I have loved you. The tradition of the Church is that Onesimus eventually became the bishop of Ephesus. Paul may be been the most influential letter-writer in history.

What would you do in that situation? Would you forgive and forget? Would you welcome the one who betrayed you?

Actually, don’t even answer that. Here’s what I really want to know. What are we doing to foster reconciliation between those who are estranged? Are we challenging others to forgive wrongs? To love each other as Christ commanded us to do? Or are we claiming boundaries are more important?

Paul really stuck his neck out for Onesimus, and it was worth it.

Can’t we do the same for others?


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