“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” – Philemon 8-9a
Restorative Justice Trainer, Ted Lewis, reflects on the time he interviewed victims of criminal cases involving murdered loved ones. Those he interviewed chose to meet with the perpetrator in prison. Mr. Lewis says that only, “about one-third of these victims found it helpful to use the language of forgiveness.” He recalls one victim whose loved one was murdered who had an aversion to the concept of forgiveness. During their conversation the victim said, “When I walked out of the prison, the core of my whole life changed. I felt I was in a state of grace. I felt like a completely new person… like the whole burden of everything had lifted from me.” Mr. Lewis suggests that perhaps we can define forgiveness as “the release of inner negativity toward another which holds us captive to the past.”
It was this kind of release from the past that the Apostle Paul was trying to secure for Onesimus and Philemon. Onesimus was a runaway slave-servant to Philemon. We don’t know the circumstances of why he left his master, but Paul’s letter implies a tense emotional wall had come between them. Onesimus had recently become a Christian (as was Philemon) and Paul was sending Onesimus back to his master. Master and servant could no longer relate to each other as they had before. Reconciliation was required.
In his letter, written from prison, Paul attempts to lead them to that place of forgiveness without directly telling them to reconcile. He does this by creating a space they can both enter, a space wherein they are both “brothers” in faith. He affirms his partnership with Philemon and then writes about Onesimus, “I am sending him — who is my very heart — back to you.”
Paul emphasizes the common, full humanity of both and encourages a new way of seeing each other “as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord” (v16). Paul casts a hopeful vision beyond past pain where hearts are refreshed (v17-22).
Paul affirms their equality in the eyes of grace, shows them how to view the present not by the lens of the past, but by the light of a hopeful future.
Without ever saying the word, Paul shows us the steps to take on the way to forgiveness and to freedom.
“Dear God, give me the wisdom to see those who have wounded me as fully human, capable of receiving your grace. Amen.”