Scripture: Isaiah 6-7, 2 Chronicles 26-27, Philemon
Philemon 13-14 would like to keep him here with me, while I am in prison for the gospel’s sake, so that he could help me in your place. 14However, I do not want to force you to help me; rather, I would like you to do it of your own free will. So I will not do anything unless you agree.
Paul writes to his friend Philemon with a request: he would like to keep Philemon’s escaped slave, Onesimus, to help him in his mission. Philemon owes Paul “your very self” and Paul could order him “to do what should be done.” Verse 9: “But because I love you, I make a request instead.”
So Paul makes his request instead of giving an order. He wants Philemon to be a willing partner, not a forced one. He wants to do this right.
Of course “right” brings up the question of slavery. In this letter, Paul subtly undermines the practice of slavery while respecting the norms of his culture. He refuses to keep Onesimus without Philemon’s permission, tacit respect for the cultural norms. But he also clearly indicates that Onesimus is now more than a slave; he is a brother in Christ, and is useful (the meaning of his name) to Paul in doing God’s mission. And Paul’s claim on him as a spiritual son is stronger than Philemon’s claim on him as a slave. Paul could have kept him with or without Philemon’s permission; he chose to do it right and get Philemon’s permission.
Why didn’t Paul just tell Philemon that he was keeping Onesimus because slavery is wrong? Paul knew that attacking slavery head on would detract from the mission of spreading the gospel of Jesus. He also knew that the gospel, like leaven, would slowly change culture; the gospel was the seed that would destroy slavery in time. Paul refused to be side-tracked from his mission, even by a social evil as glaring as slavery. Yet he understood that his mission meant the ultimate doom of this evil and every other evil with it.
So Paul played within the social boundaries of his day, while spreading a gospel that would steadily erode and ultimately change those boundaries. The gospel is subversive to every culture!
For me, this means sticking resolutely to the mission of making disciples, spreading the gospel. The gospel has the power to change people and societies. While it is important to work for social change, the most powerful change happens when people meet Jesus.
Prayer: Lord, keep me focused and on track. I want to see change in our community, and I’m willing to work for it. But never let me forget that the ultimate change happens when people meet Jesus.