September 4, 2022; Phlm 9-10,12-17; 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Paul’s letter to Philemon in the shortest letter we have from the apostle. It only appears once in the Sunday lectionary which is today’s second reading. If we want to understand why Paul wrote to Philemon, we must appreciate that slavery was an accepted reality of the ancient world. People owned slaves and had power of life and death over them. Philemon to whom Paul writes was a slave owner, and he had a slave named Onesimus who stole from him and then ran away. After he fled, Onesimus met Paul and became a Christian. Paul then wrote the letter to Philemon to ask him to forgive Onesimus for what he had done, free him from slavery, and allow Onesimus to work with Paul in the spread of the gospel. This was a significant request to make of Philemon, but Paul felt it was warranted because Onesimus had changed. By God’s grace he had accepted Jesus. In that faith Paul believed that Onesimus was no longer a slave to Philemon but his brother.
Now here is where the letter to Philemon speaks to us. Although slavery is no longer an accepted part of our world, broken relationships are. And they must be healed. If we find ourselves in a broken relationship, the letter to Philemon tells us to recognize that people can change, and we must allow them to do so. By God’s grace Onesimus was changed. He became a believer in Jesus. We believe that God continues to work in all the broken relationships of our lives, changing those who are involved. As things change, the possibility of reconciliation becomes more likely.
Is there a broken relationship in your life, with a family member, a friend, or a coworker? How long has the relationship been broken? If you have been carrying the alienation of that relationship for some time, the letter to Philemon speaks to you. Whether you are the offending party or the offended, the more that time passes, the more God is able to change all who are involved. Such change can lead to healing. God can change us in many ways. God can lead us to see new truths: “I spoke to quickly and then didn’t have the courage to back down. I never realized what a heavy burden he or she was carrying. I completely misread the situation in which the rupture took place. I have only now recognized in how many ways I need to be forgiven. I can see now that life is too valuable and too short to carry grudges.” If any of those truths begin to soften those on either side of the relationship, reconciliation becomes more likely.
Paul wrote to Philemon to ask him to look again at his relationship with Onesimus and to realize how much had changed. The letter to Philemon asks us to do the same. We might be convinced that we could never forgive or be forgiven, but God always remains active. If Philemon was able to forgive his slave, how much more can we, with God’s grace, forgive a parent, a child, or a friend.