Philemon 1:8-16

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 forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. Philemon 1:8-16

Philemon is a short little letter written by Paul to a slave owner. Onesimus, evidently a runaway slave who belonged to Philemon, had somehow ended up with Paul. With this letter Paul is encouraging Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a beloved brother in Christ, not just as a slave. Paul is asking Philemon to be kind and understanding rather than angry and harsh.

In many ways, this is an uncomfortable little letter. It was written in a day when slavery was an accepted and very common practice. People were enslaved when their lands were defeated in battle. People were enslaved when they were captured to be sold. In those days, slavery was about social class, not race or skin color. The surprise in this text is that Paul encouraged Philemon, as a brother in Christ, to receive Onesimus back as a brother in Christ. The tragedy – at least from our point of view – is that Paul doesn’t question the idea of slavery itself.

So it is that there was a time in the United States that Philemon was used as an excuse to continue the inhumane practice of slavery. Many Christians, citing passages like this or the ending of the story of Noah and the ark, believed that there was nothing wrong with people owning people like people owned cattle. Some people, they argued, were designed by God to be slaves. It was their place in life, assigned in creation.

Other Christians, of course, came to deeply despise slavery. They quoted other passages in the Bible – Jesus saying he came to free the imprisoned and the oppressed, Paul saying that, In Christ, there is no longer slave or free. These Christians argued that slavery should be abolished and that all people should be free to make their own way in life.

After years of political wrangling, the institution of slavery, and the right to own slaves, finally led to the Civil War. That war officially ended the practice of slavery as a legal institution. But the underlying idea – that God designed some people to be free and others for lives of servitude – lived on in the hearts and minds of people for a long long time. Today few people, if any, would want to return to the days of slavery. But some people still believe that some people are better than others, based on their race, the color of their skin.

This is the world in which we now read Philemon.

Martin Luther King used to say that “the universe bends towards justice.” By that he meant that the Holy Spirit was constantly at work, gently and sometimes not so gently, opening peoples’ hearts and minds to see injustice in the world and then strive to do something about it. Love was God’s tool for encouraging justice. I think this has everything to do with what Paul was saying to Philemon.

Paul wanted Philemon to see Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ more than seeing him as a slave. When we come at life through love, when we see someone first as a brother or sister, that changes everything. I don’t want to see my brothers or sisters mistreated. I don’t want to see them put down. I don’t want to see their opportunities in life be limited by anything other than their own gifts, abilities, desires, and willingness to work.

If Paul were alive today, he would be amazed to see how life has changed in so many ways. And he would see as well that we still have a long way to go.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you love us into being and you call us into love. As Paul sought reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus, use us to seek reconciliation between people who have become divided from one another. Open our eyes to injustice that we might follow you in seeking freedom and justice for all. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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2 Responses to “Philemon 1:8-16”

  1. Doug Kalahar Says:

    Pastor Nelson. Just a quick note to let you know how I look forward to your devotions. I don’t remember how I got on your mailing list but your thoughts and words are meaningful in my life. Thanks!

    Doug Kalahar
    Mankato, MN
    Member of Christ the King Lutheran Church

  2. Allan Ellstrom Says:

    pastor Nelson,
    I think Paul would be amazed and appalled. Your thoughts needed to go further. Slavery still exists today, including here in the United States. It takes many forms: sexual slavery, men held captive on fishing trawlers, workers working for very low wages. The ELCA needs to continue to cry out against these injustices.

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