But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.
Philemon vs. 14
One of the things you learn in the world of theatre, film, and story is that conflict is what makes a story interesting. It’s Friday before 4th of July weekend as I write this, so we’re all being treated by Hollywood to blockbuster conflicts of good and evil in the form of comic book heroes and alien invasions. Fun epic conflicts that feed the adrenal glands while requiring very little of us emotionally. The more personal and human a story’s conflict, the more deeply it affects us.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is an overlooked personal story amidst the grand epic of the Great Story. It’s a deeply personal moment between two men: Philemon and Onesimus. It’s a moment made possible by an unexpected, divinely appointed meeting.
Philemon is a man of means. He’s a respected local businessman in the city of Colossae, where he met Paul and became a follower of Jesus. Philemon became a generous benefactor to the believers in Colossae. He opened his home for them to meet and worship. He was generous in love and deed and greatly respected by Paul.
Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon. At some point in time, Onesimus stole from his master and ran away. Under Roman law, Onesimus was guilty of crimes punishable by death.
The exact details of the historical story are sketchy, but as a story-teller I’d dare to believe that as a runaway slave, Onesimus likely stuck to a life of petty theft to stay alive and on the run. Petty thieves, especially those who are poor runaway slaves, get caught and thrown into prison. As fate would have it, Onesimus is thrown into jail with a religious disturber of the peace named Paul. Paul recognizing the thief as a member of his friend, Philemon’s household, befriends Onesimus. The runaway slave becomes a sincere follower of Jesus.
Paul tells the slave and fledgling follower that while he has repented of his sins and his sins have been forgiven through Jesus sacrifice, he still must make things right with his master. Onesimus the runaway slave must return to his master, Philemon, as a brother in Christ. Paul pens his short letter. Onesimus, upon his release from prison, returns to his master in Colossae, letter in hand.
What a Hollywood moment. What a churning mixture of emotions as slave owner sees thief and runaway slave walking back through his door. What a moment when Philemon reads the letter from Paul and begins to fathom how God has orchestrated this story. What layers of meaning on personal, spiritual, and cultural levels as matters of slavery and human conflict gets intertwined with fate and personal faith. Runaway slave returns as a fellow follower of the faith. I can only imagine Onesimus’ fear mixed with memories of anger and hatred toward to this man who “owned” him. Philemon’s feelings of legal rights, personal betrayal, and desire for justice is now in conflict with his conscience as the word’s of Jesus’ prayer run through his head: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgiven those who sin against us.”
Today I’m reminded that the test of our faith is in our interpersonal conflicts.