In this familiar story, Paul sends Onesimus, who is probably an enslaved man who has run away, back to his master, Philemon. Paul appeals to Philemon not to enslave Onesimus but to accept Onesimus as “a beloved brother.” Most societies no longer permit the ownership of one person by another, so we ask, Does this story still have spiritual significance? Yes, in this sense: Whenever we treat other people only as instruments for our service, we have denied their humanity. When we reject the humanity of others, we are questioning humanity itself—and that includes ourselves. Martin Luther King Jr. asserted that the first victims of racism are racists themselves because they reduce their own humanity to superficial skin color.
We make use of other people all the time: those who work to provide our goods and services, custodians, shopkeepers, bus drivers—everyone who contributes to our economic and social well-being. We ourselves act in service of others in a variety of ways. As we serve one another, Paul’s words to Philemon call us to recognize and to appreciate the full humanity of others, no matter their location on the economic or social scale. We can cultivate such awareness through words of thanks to those who serve our needs and through prayers on their behalf for their well-being.
We wonder whether Philemon takes to heart the message and receives Onesimus in the spirit of Paul’s appeal. We can’t know. But we know that the letter is preserved and perhaps treasured by whoever receives it. We can continue to treasure its message by loving all those who serve as siblings in Christ.
Gracious God, thank you for the gift of humanity that we share with others. Make us more sensitive to the fact that we are all siblings in your intended family of humankind. Amen.
Jeremiah brings another warning of impending judgment. If the people will not turn to the Lord, God will break the nation and reshape it, just as a potter breaks down and reshapes clay on a wheel. The psalmist praises God for God’s intimate knowledge of each one of us. Even from the moment of conception, God knows us and has a plan for our lives. Philemon is often overlooked, but it packs a punch. A text that some used in the past to justify slavery teaches a very different message. Paul warns Philemon not to enslave Onesimus again but to receive him back as a brother. Secular power structures have no place in God’s kingdom. In Luke, Jesus uses striking examples to teach us that the life of faith cannot be lived well with half-hearted commitment.
Read Jeremiah 18:1-11. As clay, how can you better respond to the Potter’s guiding hand?
Read Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18. God knows you better than you know yourself, yet God has given you the ability to make your own decisions. How do you respond to God?
Read Philemon 1-21. How do you honor the full humanity of those who serve you through their work?
Read Luke 14:25-33. What does it mean for you to take up the cross in your life?
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