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Dearest Philemon … Welcome Onesimus

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.
Philemon 15-16

Ah yes ladies, as we said yesterday, how could Philemon refuse to grant Paul his favor? His strong faith in Jesus and his love for all the saints were hallmarks of his reputation. Surely he would jump at the chance to welcome Onesimus into his home: any son of yours, Paul, is a dear brother of mine!

Truth is, Philemon had a legal right to beat, imprison, even to execute Onesimus. He was his slave, his property. He had run away. Slaves meant money. If they had to be replaced to get the work done, the owner would have to purchase another. At this point Philemon most certainly found Paul’s words weighing heavily on his heart.   

The academy award winning movie, Twelve Years a Slave, plays over and over in my mind. In 1841 Solomon Northup, born a freed man in 1808 in upstate New York, was kidnapped and sold as a slave in the deep south. It would be twelve long years before he was free again. In 1853 he wrote of those years of horror in his memoirs. The beatings and living conditions and slave labor were awful. Particularly poignant were the Sunday sermons by the plantation owners, biblically justifying both slavery and their actions. Even the kind owners were unwilling to buck the system.

Unlike slavery pre-civil war, in Bible times slaves could own land, have a home, be respected, earn their freedom. Until then however, they were the property of their owner. Philemon saw the conundrum at hand. Paul was priming the pump of radical social reform: if he (Onesimus) is my son, my brother in the Lord, and if you’re my brother, he’s your brother, too. You ought to welcome him back as better than a slave.        

What was a slave owner like Philemon to do? Should he punish Onesimus? Could he throw his arms around him in genuine brotherly love? The world was watching. Paul’s appeal was a big deal. 

The question of extending brotherly love to all believers has rattled around the world ever since. Yes, slavery per se no longer exists. But what about condescension? If you saw or read The Help, set in Jackson MS in 1962, you were vividly reminded of the manner in which southern maids were treated by their socialite employers a mere fifty years ago. Your brothers and sisters in the Lord are to be loved as Jesus would, period.

Nancy P

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