Today’s Bible passages are: Numbers 2, Psalm 36, Ecclesiastes 12, and Philemon
By Tricia Lott Williford
Think of the greatest mentor in your life. The person about whom you might say, “She taught me everything I know,” or “I am the person I am today because of his influence.”
When I think of the most powerful mentors in my life, I can speak from experience: pretty much for the rest of my days, if they ask anything of me, I’m going to feel compelled to respond. I would be pretty hard pressed to act against what someone asks of me, be that person a camp counselor from the best summers of my life, a teacher who taught me far more than what was on the syllabus, or the youth pastor who led me think bigger and better than what I had known before.
That’s who Paul was to most of the early Christians. He was not their biological father, but he was their spiritual parent. He taught them how to live and showed them who to become as Christ followers. When he was imprisoned for sharing the gospel, I imagine that they lived for his letters – they waited eagerly to hear what their mentor had to say, this man who had so deeply loved them and influenced their lives.
And so I imagine myself in Philemon’s house church on the day when this letter arrived from Paul. I don’t know how it happened, of course, but it’s fun for my mind to imagine. I imagine that they gathered together to read the letter aloud, maybe on a spur of the moment as word spread through their community – “Hey! A letter came from Paul! Meet at Philemon’s house tonight after dinner!”
I imagine Philemon reading the letter to the people of his church, and I picture them leaning in close to hear Paul’s words. Would he give them some new lesson, a new word of wisdom? Would he let them know how they could possibly help and encourage him while he is in prison? Did he have a specific message to any of them in particular – a thanks for this one’s leadership, that one’s hospitality, or the friendship of those two? His words were golden to them.
So I wonder what they were thinking as Paul leads into his big ask. Paul had written things like, I always thank God when I pray for you. Your love has given me such joy and comfort. Your kindness is refreshing.
And then, I have a big, bold favor to ask. I could demand it because it’s the right thing for you to do, but I would rather just ask you. Because I love you and you love me, because of our long history and friendship, I would rather just ask you. Consider this a personal request from me to you.
I bet they were looking at each other, nodding. Yes, yes! Whatever it is, whatever is coming next, whatever he asks us to do – yes!
And then Paul says it: Please show kindness to Onesimus.
And in my mind, I imagine them surprised. Shocked. Maybe they even startled in response. Onesimus? Welcome him? With kindness?
Onesimus had wronged Philemon. He had stolen from him and run away, and it’s likely that his life of crime continued all the way to Rome, where he was eventually arrested, probably for stealing again. Now a slave and fugitive, he had been imprisoned with Paul. As Paul was known to do, he poured into Onesimus. He taught him as a father would train his son; he shared the gospel, and Onesimus too became a Christ follower.
And I love Paul’s poetry when he says, with him comes my very heart.
Forgiving Onesimus would call Philemon to make the right choice, not the popular decision. In that day, slave masters were free to deal with their slaves however they chose, and Philemon was probably hearing suggestions from everyone to give O. what he deserved. But here is Paul, writing and asking him to forgive him.
Paul asks Philemon to make the wise decision. To show love and consideration, kindness and care. He says to Philemon, please open your home and let him back in… because I asked you to.
Today’s Question: In this letter where Paul is asking Philemon to forgive, let’s draw to the more difficult question: Who is Jesus asking you to forgive?
Tricia Lott Williford’s great loves are teaching, writing, and her two young sons, Tucker and Tyler. She collects books, words, and bracelets, and she pushes the boundaries of ‘widowed, single mom.’ Tricia speaks at events and retreats all over the country, and she writes daily on her blog, TriciaLottWilliford.com.