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A reflection on the letter of Paul to Philemon
Enoch McAtee, Logos Editor
Few writings within the catalogue of Christian scripture are as short and evocative as the Epistle to Philemon. These letters can be read in a single sitting, the epistle numbering 25 verses in print. Nonetheless, like each book of the Bible, it has a message that belongs to each generation and people, regardless of time and place.
In the general overview of history, each era can be considered in its own rite a “Christian” era; each person being called to communion with God, independent of the circumstances they find themselves in. One such theme that speaks to the essence of Christianity is a primacy of mercy within our lives, in relation to God and neighbour. In Philemon, we see this in Paul’s appeal to his compatriot, to receive Onesimus, once a slave, as a brother in Christ. To a contemporary audience such as ours, one can only speculate on the circumstances that brought Onesimus into the service of Paul the Apostle, but the central motif is clear. That is, the transformation of a master-servant relationship into a communion of equals in Christ the Lord.
The appeal that Paul makes is countercultural and a radical shift in values for its time, nearly two millennia ago. Moreover, Paul’s attempt to remedy any injury between these two is reminiscent of another moment in the New Testament, that of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In both episodes, we can conceive of agents being merciful to their neighbour, the outpouring of heart and soul for the sake and benefit of the other, even at a material cost on their own behalf.
One can only anticipate Philemon’s ready acceptance of Paul’s request; however, nothing is for certain. Each day, we may find ourselves in situations like Philemon or the Good Samaritan that require us to show mercy on our neighbour despite the supposed costs it may have on our person. Time, money, energy, and other resources are assets in a market-economy and modern-day society that hyper-emphasize the value of work and the constant acquisition of honors, wealth, pleasures, and powers, however categorically they may be defined. In focusing on such servile activities, we may forget the things in life most fundamental to our existence as human beings and our basic duties as Christians and peoples of faith.
The attitude and stance required of us is one of mercy exemplified by God the Son. We are called to be merciful because God showed mercy on us. That is not to say that justice is absent from consideration—justice and mercy must work in intimate collaboration, an altogether greater discussion for elsewhere. Needless to say, we are all called to be merciful in our own ways, especially towards the poorest and most vulnerable, extending our souls to encompass the greatness that God has in store for us. We must allow ourselves to reach a fellowship and communion among members and with the Divine Love that demands only the best from us.