Philemon is a tricky text to read and interpret, not least because we have so little to go on. Nonetheless, it does say something for us about the transformative impact of relationships on the individuals concerned and on wider relationships and society as a whole. If we see people differently, somehow changed, our relationships with them change. For example, a young man sitting in a park by himself could seem suspicious. The same young man sitting in the same park, this time playing with his baby daughter, is likely to elicit a very different reaction. Paul is asking the same of Philemon: to treat Onesimus as Paul’s son and also a brother in Christ.
Who we are is, in so many ways, defined by our relationships with other people: how many times have you been referred to as the child/spouse/parent of someone else? In the village where I grew up, I am still known to many as “Colin’s daughter”! What would our world look like if we constantly saw, and treated, each person we met as a beloved child of someone else?
Three-in-One and One-in-Three,
at the heart of your being is the power of relationship
that holds love together and defines who you are.
May all our relationships, formal or casual,
be reflections of your inner connectedness,
which calls us all children
and invites us to treat one another as family.
Help us, each day,
to acknowledge the belovedness of every person we meet,
so our lives may be transformed by the gift of community,
for the sake of all, AMEN.
10-14 While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to.
15-16 Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while. You’re getting him back now for good—and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That’s what he was to me—he’ll be even more than that to you.
17-20 So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good.