TEXT: Philemon 1-7; Luke 6:39-45
For the month of August we will be looking at the short New Testament book of Philemon. Let me offer a short overview of the whole before we walk through it in parts and more slowly.
What has apparently happened is that Onesimus, a bondservant to Philemon, has run away and come to Paul, who is in prison as an old man. For clarification, a “slave” or bondservant in almost all New Testament contexts has little to do with our American history and image of slavery, but is a debtor who has gone to work in the household in order to pay off a debt. Once that debt was paid, the bondservant would return to his old life. By running away from Philemon, Onesimus has also run out on paying his debt, and so has “stolen” from Philemon.
Running out on a debt was a serious matter. What makes this story so unusual is that Philemon is a Christian and pastor, and Onesimus apparently becomes a Christian while with Paul. Onesimus hasn’t gone into hiding or disappeared, but has gone to the other Christian and pastor he knows, the Apostle Paul, and is “ministering” to Paul in jail. He is continuing to serve someone, but not the one to whom he owes the debt. Paul is greatly blessed by Onesimus, but is convicted to send him back to Philemon and not leave the relationship and debt broken between them. The bulk of the letter to Philemon is Paul’s “appeal” to him about receiving Onesimus back into his household.
A Good Man
Today we are primarily looking at the introduction to Paul’s letter to Philemon. And what cannot go unnoticed is Paul’s high estimation of Philemon’s character and life. Paul lavishes praise on him. After greetings to Philemon as “beloved brother and fellow worker” (v. 1) as well as to others in the household, Paul gives thanks to God for Philemon, because: “I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints.” (v. 5) And there’s more… “I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.” (v. 7)
In fact, the only thing Paul prays that is not praise or thanks for Philemon is in v. 6: “I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.” We’ll come back to that.
Philemon is what we would call a “good Christian.” He serves as pastor and leader to a house church. He is known to Paul as loving, faithful, and an encouragement to the saints (other Christians).
But even the best and most sincere folks can have blind spots. And I believe Philemon had a blind spot. It would have been the case that all his household would have not only been exposed to Christian teaching, but even present for worship… that goes for the bondservants as well as the family members; households worshiped together.
I said that the practice of paying off a debt as a bondservant in the 1st century was different from slavery in our country. I would expand on that statement in two ways. The fact that this letter is about a debtor-bondservant actually opens up the story more broadly as so many of us experience various forms of debt. But the other point I would make is that some things do stay the same. It is human nature to look down on or look over people, particularly those who may owe money… especially if they owe YOU money. And this point is shared with the African-American experience of slavery. They were looked down upon and looked over… even by those whose peers might have described them as “good Christians.” And even today, it is so easy to look down upon or look over those who are different, or ‘serving’ you as a maid or waiter or trash collector or… you name it. Even “good Christians” have blind spots and fall into this age-old trap.
So that’s what I think Philemon has to teach us. Hearing Paul’s initial description of this Christian man, we might all rightly say, “I’d like to be like that.” But what we come to realize is that Philemon may have had a blind spot for his bondservant, not seeing him as someone with whom to share the Gospel of Christ or to count as a “brother in Christ” even with the debt owed. Yet the same debtor was someone whom the Apostle Paul truly saw, though at that point he was not only a debtor, but a thief.
Let’s pause and consider Jesus’ words.
A Blind Man
Jesus spoke a parable that we mostly remember for the log and the speck part. But there was so much more. He said, “A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Will they not both fall into a pit?” Is it enough to be a “good Christian?” Jesus says that if we are blind (even in one area), we risk leading others astray. He will lead Philemon to this truth over the course of his letter, challenging him in an area that he previously had missed.
Then there’s the speck and the log part of the parable. Is it possible that Philemon overlooked his bondservant because he was a debtor? He had made some mistake or some sin to get him into debt and needed to get his life together before becoming “one of the faithful?” Paul will gently teach Philemon what Jesus strongly said, “You have something of your own to tend to first!”
And finally, Jesus teaches in the same parable that the fruit we produce – our words, our actions – come out of the tree of our heart. If we seek the good with our heart, it will be reflected in what we say and do. I believe Philemon WAS a good man, earnestly desiring to please the Lord. And it is precisely that which Paul banks on to appeal to him later in the letter, to invite him to see his bondservant with new eyes as a brother in Christ.
We will address the status of the debt and the theft later on, but for today, want to simply make this point: even a “good man” or a “good woman” has blind spots. If we truly desire to grow in faith and grow toward God, we will seek to learn, to see, and to change.
I said earlier that the only thing Paul prays for in these opening verses that is not praise or thanks for Philemon is in v. 6: “I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.”
This is Philemon’s blind spot. He has been an excellent Christian teacher and leader with his family and those gathered in his church, but he has overlooked the opportunity to have “effective fellowship” with someone like Onesimus, who owed him such a debt that he was working as a bondservant.
Paul will later describe Onesimus as “my very heart.” How quick we might be to see someone up front in a church or Christian gathering as the “good one” and dismiss the worth and dignity of debtors, addicts, sinners, and other ‘misfits.’ Yet scripture teaches that each of them is created in God’s image… good not because of what they have done or haven’t done, but because God’s image is good and full of dignity.
Might it be that we also share in Philemon’s blind spot and need to have our eyes opened by Jesus’ words? I think for me the answer is ‘yes.’
What we will see in the coming weeks is that Paul is uncharacteristically gentle as he writes to Philemon… and to us. He will not berate or ‘force’ the lesson, but invites Philemon to see things – see a person – with new eyes. It is my hope that God will do something similar with us. For if there is any goodness to be found in us, it is not in our own doing, but in the goodness of God’s Spirit living in us. And if that is the case, I know God will continue the good work he began in us until it is brought to completion.
May God give us ears to hear and hearts to respond in faith. Amen.