Today, my quiet time took me to Philemon, that tiny, little-studied book of the Bible Paul wrote to Philemon, his “beloved co-worker” on behalf of his slave, Onesimus. Lately, I’ve been writing down the scripture I read because my brain just won’t stop and focus on a single thought or task on its own, and I have to trick it into paying attention. Believe me, it’s not because I’m some spiritual powerhouse in my quiet time. Writing it down, however, slowed my thinking and led me to a funny thought. Paul’s writing style, in his old age, became more like Marie Barone (Everybody Loves Raymond) than the style of his earlier writings.
A little background might help. Onesimus apparently ran away from Philemon and was pretty much useless to him. In fact, he was a bit of a thief as well as I understand the story, having stolen money from Philemon. The theft was serious enough, but the running away thing was way more serious and could have cost him his life. Somehow he made his way to Paul, and had accepted the Good News of the Gospel, and now Paul wrote to Philemon seeking not only that he not be punished but asking for his freedom and offering to pay the debt for anything owed Philemon.
Paul first butters up the recipient of this tiny epistle in verses 4-7 by appealing to all the good he hears and knows about Philemon himself. Now I’m sure he really meant it, but I’m also sure he knew it wouldn’t hurt for Philemon to be feeling pretty good about himself just in time for the request that would follow shortly.
4 I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, 5 because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people.6 And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ. 7 Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people.
I don’t know about you, but I might be convinced to grant a favor if such an important authority in my faith had such glowing things to say about me. He didn’t stop there though; he went on to give a glowing report of Onesimus, and the two passages together set the stage for Paul’s “request.” Assuring Philemon that he did not want to take advantage of his own position to demand he comply, he says he wants Philemon’s approval to have Onesimus back, and in a show of good faith actually sends Onesimus home so that Philemon could have thrown the book at him. He was within his rights to have the errant slave tried and put to death. Paul was not, however, a no-strings-attached kind of guy. He hits him with verses 17-19, a guilt trip worthy of our Everybody Loves Raymond’s beloved mother-in-law.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.18 If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, PAUL, WRITE THIS WITH MY OWN HAND: I WILL REPAY IT. AND I WON’T MENTION THAT YOU OWE ME YOUR VERY SOUL!
Wow! Now he really has a choice, right? In reality he did have a choice, and in our own lives, we do as well. Sometimes I start to think that I can pick and choose what parts of God’s Word I’ll respond to, as if some parts of God’s word are simply general principles but not really something I need to do—or not do. I won’t participate in murder, adultery, theft, drunkenness, or the “big” sins, but I sure will condescend cleverly with my words that hurt and divide. I’ll spread that piece of gossip or bark at a sister in Christ. I’ll disrespect my husband or exasperate my children, and I’ll refuse to extend forgiveness to those who harmed me as if I DON’T OWE GOD MY VERY SOUL!
Paul had come to the point in his life as an old man in prison where he just didn’t have time to dink around with feelings; he didn’t have much time left, and he knew it. He went ahead and applied the pressure. Often I take God’s Word like it’s coming from June Cleaver, that kind-hearted, perfect, Leave It to Beaver mom, who practiced subtlety, but the need here is urgent. By here, I don’t mean in Philemon; I mean here in my life today. I need Marie Barone with her unfiltered honesty and pushiness. I need my quiet time to push me and make me feel uncomfortable and motivate me to change, even if it is negative motivation.
Now I’m not sure guilt is always the greatest motivator, and I’m not Apostle Paul, so my future daughters-in-law can rest assured, I will not be taking my lessons from Marie, but I will most certainly take them from Paul.
…and that’s the view From My Front Porch.