Reconciliation in Practice: Paul’s Letter to Philemon

September 9, 2013

Once every three years, we read the smallest little letter in the New Testament, Paul’s Letter to Philemon. This letter gives us an example of how Paul applied his own teaching in his own life. In this case, Paul applies his own teaching on reconciliation and mercy, one of the most important aspects of Christian living.

Imagine you were the ancient named Greek Philemon. You are very wealthy. You were converted to this new sect by a charismatic traveling preacher named Paul who has become a friend. Your new religion requires you to completely upend your life. But you’ve become completely committed to your faith, and you even support the whole church in your city. One of your slaves runs away and actually steals something of value of yours in order to finance his trip. And then Onesiums turns up on the doorstep carrying this letter from Paul. And Paul is asking you to take him back, and more than that, he asks you to give him his freedom, to forgive him his theft. That takes some chutzpa. So how does Paul do it?

He starts out by buttering Philemon up. In all of his other letters, Paul calls himself an apostle. He wraps himself in as much authority as he can muster. But in this one, he addresses Philemon as a “dear friend and co-worker”. He humbles himself in order to meet Philemon as an equal. He praises Philemon and thanks him for everything that he did for Paul. He is subtly reminding Philemon of his recent conversion, and even though he doesn’t claim the authority of an apostle, he carefully reminds Philemon that he really is an apostle.

So while he could simply command him to take Onesimus back, he instead makes a personal appeal. Onesimus has become helpful to Paul personally, and Paul wants Philemon to take that into account. Paul even jokes that Onesimus was ‘useless’ to Philemon and ‘useful’ to Paul. Onesimus name means ‘useful’.

But this personal approach doesn’t stop Paul from laying a not so veiled guilt trip onto Philemon. After he agrees to make good anything that Onesimus stole, he says, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” But of course, by even saying it, Paul is reminding Philemon of his salvation that came though his preaching.

But the most compelling argument that Paul makes is that Philemon should take Onesimus back because this would be the Christian thing to do. Furthermore, if he wants to show how he loves his fellow Christians, then he would gladly give him his freedom and forgive the theft. Paul is hopeful that the offense and the separation can be an opportunity for the two of them to grow in Christ, to build a relationship that truly reflects that they are both equal in the sight of the Lord. The sin between them becomes a place where grace and mercy can bring redemption.

There are two important lessons in this letter for us. The first is that we should use absolutely every tool we have to bring about reconciliation. We should humble ourselves, we should cajole, we should appeal to people’s goodwill, do anything to bring people back together. Reconciliation is too important to make a half hearted effort. The second lesson for us to remember is that reconciliation and mercy and powerful channels of God grace. Reconciliation can bring us closer to God in ways that we cannot possibly fathom. God can take these places of pain and conflict and turn them into places of growth and joy.

One of the things that strike me about this letter is that it is a moment in time. We don’t know what happened when Onesimus turned up on Philemon’s doorstep with this letter. We only know that Paul did everything he could to bring these two Christians back together, and this letter became part of our Scriptures so that we can see how Paul lived out what he preached, and we can be inspired to be agents of reconciliation today.

– Michael Tuck+

Previous post:

Next post: