Jeremiah 30-31 Philemon 1
“Maybe Onesimus was separated from you for a short time so you could have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a loved brother. I love him very much, but you will love him even more, both as a person and as a believer in the Lord.” (Philemon 15-16 NCV)
Slavery is a terrible institution, no matter how humane it may be in some societies. The form of slavery ended by the American Civil War was brutal and our modern America slavery may be worse. In Rome, slavery was such an ingrained part of society that were you to poll people while walking down the street, the slaves would far outnumber the freedmen. Slaves were not mistreated to the extent Americans did so in the 1800’s, but they were still slaves and without freedom. When Jesus was still young, Romans began manumitting, or freeing their slaves. In the year AD 2, a law was passed limiting the number of manumissions a slave owner could grant. At the same time, runaway slaves would be treated with great brutality. As Paul wrote Philemon, he was pleading for him to treat Onesimus, Philemon’s slave who had run away, with compassion now that Onesimus was a brother in Christ.
Philemon is a tough book to read because of the discussion of slavery. Onesimus had run away from his master and gone to Paul, whom he knew of because of his master’s faith. Some where in the process, Onesimus became a follower of Christ. If I had a vote in this matter, my vote would be to tell Paul to keep Onesimus with him and not even tell Philemon. Paul recognized, though, that it was important to do things decently and in order. He didn’t even demand that Philemon release Onesimus, knowing that he might be asking him to break the law to release him. Instead, he called on Philemon to retreat his returning slave as a brother in Christ and not just a slave. In other words, he appealed to Philemon to show grace towards Onesimus and change the relationship between slave and master. Sometimes we may have the right to demand something from other people. We may get our demands met but embitter the other person and put a roadblock in the path that God was leading them. I wish Paul had written a diatribe against slavery here. The truth is that sometimes the world needs hurricane force winds to change the direction of a world gone wrong, and other times it needs a gentle breeze. In this situation, Paul used a gentle breeze. In today’s world, sometimes we need to be hurricanes as we speak truth to power; at other times we need to be a gentle breeze. May God grant us the wisdom to know the difference as we seek to make a difference.
Lord, You’ve called us to make a difference in this world. Sometimes we need to act in ways that are swift and overwhelming, at other times we need to be gentle. Give us the wisdom to know the difference and the patience to act in Your will.
Scripture taken from the New Century Version®. Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.