What I’m Reading Today: Philemon
Of all the books in the New/Greek Testament, probably the most challenging one to deal with is the book of Philemon.
“Why is that?” you might ask.
Because the social context of the book goes completely against our modern values. In the letter, Paul wrote to a slave owner named Philemon - asking him to take back his slave named Onesimus who had run away. Paul asks Philemon to be gracious and Christ-like in taking back Onesimus.
Many of us modern readers might read the book of Philemon and be shocked to see one of the foundational figures of our faith supporting the institution of slavery. The book is one more reminder about the role the historical and social contexts played in the formation of Scripture.
“If the book of Philemon is such a strong expression of a distant culture and alien set of norms, does that mean there is nothing that we can take away from the book?” some have asked me over the years.
The last time I preached on the text, there was one message that I took from the text. Let me see if I can help put that message into context for you.
In the course of our lives, many of us think to ourselves, “God, I could get my life together if only the circumstances of my life radically changed.” By this, we mean things would fall into place if only we got a better job, if only we had less debt, or if only we had a more supportive partner. In other words, we lose ourselves in the phrase “if only…”
The book of Philemon challenges us to do something else with our energies: make the most out of the circumstances we currently find ourselves in. In the case of the book, this means Paul challenges the person Philemon to be the best (i.e. most compassionate and Christ-like) slave owner he can be. For Onesimus, Paul challenges him to make the most of his limited circumstance. My sense is that if Paul were writing to you today, he would encourage you to do the same: make the most of your present circumstances as well.
Perhaps you have grown use to investing a great deal of time and energy losing yourself in the “If only’s”. If that’s the case, I would invite you to use the spirit of Paul’s writing and do something radical this 4th of July Weekend: declare your independence from those “if only’s”. Take the energy you previously invested in exploring the “if only’s” and redirect it to a new phrase: “How can I make the most of ...”
Til next time…