Philemon done got vol-un-told.
That’s when someone else volunteers you for something you wouldn’t have volunteered for. But they did it nicely, so it’s not like you can exactly say no. Kind of like when Paul wrote his letter to Philemon.
You have to wonder what the church leader Philemon thought when he first read it. Philemon is a wealthy landowner, and his slave Onesimus has run off. This in itself is bad enough, but the slave has apparently stolen from Philemon as well.
So now he receives a letter from his good friend Paul, asking that the thieving slave not be punished, and asking that this slave be allowed to be a free man. And on top of that, Paul has the nerve to add, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you … ”
I imagine most of us, if faced with a grabber like that, would figure we had not only lost a slave and whatever he stole, but a friend as well. We would say to ourselves, “I’m not a slave! Why is Paul treating me like one? Where does he get off saying he’s confident of my obedience?”
This Guy Paul Has Nerve
The answer can be just as direct as the question. Paul expected obedience for three reasons: because of what he says, because of what he does, and because of who he is.
Paul’s first appeal for Philemon’s obedience is part and parcel of his letter. He is writing, making an effort, making an argument, being persuasive. There are just certain arguments that carry their own weight. They have power all by themselves: “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” to borrow a phrase. Some words, some ideas, are just so persuasive, it doesn’t matter WHERE they come from, they just WORK, that’s all.
“Don’t do the wrong thing just because your enemy is doing the right thing.” Or, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” or, “What unites us is much more powerful than what divides us.”
It doesn’t matter which one of these was said by Dwight Eisenhower, which by Ronald Reagan and which by Franklin Roosevelt. You can completely separate them from whoever said them, and they still hold up.
Skin in the Game
But Paul goes on: “Okay, if my argument alone doesn’t persuade you, then think about what I have done. I was the one who established the church that meets in your home. I have cared for your slave like a friend and a brother. In spite of the fact that he would be a valuable servant and good company in prison, I am returning him to you. And if any of this costs you anything or inconveniences you in any way, I’ll pay for it.”
Paul isn’t just being a meddlesome busybody. He is not a backseat driver or a Monday-morning quarterback. He’s just as much a part of what is going on here as Philemon and his slave, Onesimus are. Nobody can tell him to go mind his own business, because this IS his business.
What Am I, Chop Liver?
And if that fails, Paul has one more appeal to make. If Philemon is not swayed by the wisdom of Paul’s arguments or by the recounting of his sacrifices and achievements as a servant of Christ, then Paul asks him to consider one more thing: “Just who am I to you? What do I mean to you?”
Paul refers to God, OUR Father, and calls Philemon his brother and fellow soldier. He refers to his plight as “an ambassador and now a prisoner” for Christ. He says to Philemon, “If you consider me your partner … ”
This is probably the most powerful appeal that Paul makes. If you are a soldier, it doesn’t matter whether you like your superiors, or agree with them, or anything like that. You do what you’re told. If someone is family, then, as my Grandmother Evans said, “If one of us has a nickel we all have a nickel.” If someone is really your business partner, you look out for your partner’s interests because there is no way to tell where his interests end and yours begin.
Any Slaveholders Out There?
All right, so far we have had a good lesson in the rhetorical skills of the Apostle Paul, but what does all this have to do with us? Anybody engaging in slavery these days is in for a lot more trouble than anyone who escapes from slavery, even if the escapee is an embezzler.
How do Paul’s lessons apply to anything going on in our lives?
Sometimes the voice of God comes from other believers more clearly than it comes into our own heads or hearts. God’s voice may be telling us great things of great nations plucked up and broken down or of a need to turn from evil and live. God’s voice may tell us of great wisdom and salvation, wrapped up in stories of how NOT to go about building a tower. Or that voice may be calling upon us to forgive a slave’s theft and take him back as a friend and a brother in Christ.
And whenever we hear the voice of God speak to us, whether it comes from the mouth of a friend, an enemy or somebody we’re just not sure of, we might also hear our fellow soldier, our brother in Christ, and our partner Paul saying:
“Confident of your obedience, I speak to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”