Philemon and Forgiveness (Part 1)

Paul’s letter to Philemon may be short, but it is a great example of a personal communication that addresses a single conflict. My guess is that Paul wrote other such letters that never resurfaced for possible canonization. Nearly all of Paul’s letters that did survive had multiple agendas, offering instruction and encouragement in lots of areas. As they were written to entire communities, the odds of preservation were higher. But Philemon is just about the separation and possible reconciliation between two people: Philemon, a leader of a house church leader in Colossae, and Onisemus, a servant who once worked under Philemon and ended up serving Paul in prison far away in Rome.

My hope in this new series on Philemon is to draw out several learning-points about methods of conflict resolution as well as to show a broader understanding of forgiveness. Specifically, I want to show how Paul models a way of being a third-party intervener in relational conflicts to promote forgiveness. Some people in the mediation world would cringe at the way Paul is anything but a “third-party neutral,” considering how he appears to almost manipulate Philemon into reconciling with Onisemus whom Paul was sending back to Colossae. In fact, Paul even writes that if there is any financial restitution left to be made, that he himself would absorb that responsibility to make things right. That’s hardly being a neutral mediator.

Nevertheless, a mediator Paul was in this story of reconciliation. We will come to see how Paul, within a Roman-Greco culture that allowed certain people to ‘pull rank’ in order to get things done, was actually going out of his way to be non-coercive. Instead, he goes to great lengths to empower both parties to choose into a constructive resolution with each other. In this light, we will unpack how Paul had set the stage for potential reconciliation with Invitational language more than Directive language.

When was the last time?

When was the last time you read the whole letter of Philemon in the New Testament? I recommend that you pause here and read the entire letter, yes, all 25 verses, before reading the rest of my posting. And even if you sense that you know the content well, please read it again now and focus in on Paul’s word-choices. Does he sound overly directive or does he sound more invitational?

The word mediator comes from the Latin word ‘mediatus’ which simply means “to place in the middle.” ‘Medius’ means middle, and thus we have words like ‘medium’ and ‘median’ that imply an in-between element. In Paul’s case, he actively inserted himself in the middle of a situation of relational strife. Not everyone can do that, nor should everyone try to do that. But there are times when a third-party helper is essential to support a reconciliation process. We do not know if Onesimus left by his own choice or if he was told to leave by Philemon’s choice. But whatever the case, the conditions of the time of leaving had left an emotional strain that alienated the two men from each other. Paul was burdened by this alienation and he would not accept that state as the final word on the relationship. Even so, what was he stepping into? One can imagine that neither Philemon nor Onesimus would have wanted to accidentally bump into each other in an aisle of the local agora, that is, the local supermarket of Colossae.

Is there a person in your life that you would not wish to bump into in the middle of a supermarket aisle? Reflect a bit why that would be an undesirable situation for you. What does it say about the terms or conditions of your departure moment from that person? But in this piece we are also thinking about Paul as a third character in this story. Can you imagine a scenario where a third-party person (who knows you and the estranged party) takes the initiative to get the two of you back together on good speaking terms? How would that feel to you, especially if that helper was living 800 miles away from where you would be seeing the other party again face-to-face? Such was the context for the letter to Philemon, written in Rome and carried by Onisemus who walked and sailed over 800 miles back to his old master, Philemon. Before I post Part 2 in this series, I invite you to think about how this scenario might look in today’s world and imagine yourself being one of the main characters!

Contacting Ted Lewis

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