It’s week four already! I’ve loved joining in on this series of short books that hold great truth and lessons to be learned. I hope God has been working in your heart and showing you things through the past few weeks! As we take one more look at the book of Philemon, I want to challenge us to think about these two connected questions: How hard is it for you personally to change your mind about someone? And what might that mean for the Kingdom of God?
In my experience, the easy part is labeling someone based on a first impression. How did that person make you feel? How did her actions reveal her character? How did his demeanor affect you? We can tell a lot about someone based on a first impression. And if it’s a strong one, it’s easy to hold on to that label as their forever label. In addition, if it’s a negative impression, phew! Good luck on that person redeeming herself, am I right? The first example that comes to mind is customer service representatives. We either fall in love with a company or we have an enemy at the end of those heated phone calls. Think about it! Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and heard a very strong opinion about an entire company based on one interaction on the phone with one representative? Interesting. We like to have our minds made up about people. It makes life simpler to digest.
Let’s take it back to the story in Philemon—who is Onesimus to Philemon? What labels can we identify? He’s a slave. So, he is property of Philemon. He is possibly a thief, as Paul references being willing to cover the tab if Onesimus wronged Philemon or owes him anything. That’s about all we need to know to set up a picture in our mind of the labels Philemon must have of his runaway slave. Someone’s in trouble!
So, here we have this dishonest slave returning to his master. You can imagine the punishment that could legally be in store for a runaway slave. But, what does Paul request of Philemon? To welcome Onesimus back into his household as a brother! To treat him like he would treat Paul himself! This is a bold ask!
What does this require of Philemon? It means he needs to not only forgive this slave for the legal wrong that had been done, but also change his mindset toward the man in his heart.
Paul makes a play on words in the beginning of his letter when he refers to Onesimus as starting off not useful, and now useful to Philemon. (Onesimus’ name means “profitable,” so I imagine Paul chuckling at his own wit). But I think there is a deeper understanding beyond that jokey jargon. I believe Paul wants to direct Philemon’s attention to another form of profit Onesimus can offer—one that goes beyond the manual labor or household duties to be accomplished. Now, as a saved brother in Christ, how much more can Onesimus be profitable to the Kingdom of God? Do you think Paul has a bit of a deeper motive in asking for Philemon to forgive? This can be a beautiful prodigal son moment for the two as they reunite, but it can also do some eternal good for the work of God’s Kingdom.
Through this story, I just love the concept of giving people second chances—allowing ourselves to believe that when God works in someone’s life, there is serious transformation that takes place. We might miss it if we get too stuck in the labels we stubbornly hold onto. Who are some people in your life today that might need a second chance? Have you labeled them for good and disregarded the benefit they could be to the Kingdom? Maybe God wants to use you to invite them in as a brother or sister.
-Today’s post written by Emily Teterud