“Holy flattery”. That’s how Martin Luther described this shortest of Paul’s seven authenticated epistles since Paul uses every rhetorical technique, including bald flattery, to encourage Philemon to take back his runaway slave, Onesimus.
Why Philemon, the letter, has become a favorite for me–especially when reading it aloud in a Bible Study group–is for the insight into how this amazing spiritual thinker and Christian evangelist dealt one on one with his friends. This single-chapter letter is the only private one we have of the Apostle, without a single church disciplinary setback in sight.
Philemon illustrates that Paul is almost shameless in using whatever persuasive argument would work to encourage his friend, Philemon, to take the high moral ground. Paul knew that this Christian follower/slave owner was completely within his legal rights to have the runaway killed. Yet the great Apostle appeals to Philemon not only to forego such legally allowed retribution, but writing from prison himself, Paul cranks his appeal up a notch, imploring Philemon to forgive the slave and even welcome this new follower of Christ to the same communion table. Wow.
Philemon nudges us to ask to what lengths are we willing to go to argue for what we believe, even with close friends. Do we stay in silence when a friend is drowning in a tangled mass of ethical dilemmas that require clear moral decision-making? Or do we summon the kind of relentless courage Paul exhibits in Philemon to confront, to speak up, to essentially love our friend to higher moral ground.
I’ve had times in my life when I wished for my own ‘Paul’, a friend who cared enough to step in and tell me to wake up to my higher moral knowing. And conversely, I’ve been that ‘friend’ who remained in too much polite silence to ‘interfere’.
But this is what Bible study does. It changes you. It makes you more alert to your own and others’ moral dilemmas, preparing you for decisions you may have only seconds to make, but that can be life changers. We only have to picture the executive walking handcuffed from the courthouse to know that the insider trading call he took the year before–in which he had to very quickly decide if he would hear the information that would help him make millions, or hang up immediately knowing it was wrong—isn’t about money but moral fitness.
This is the value of this brief, one-chapter whopper of a Biblical text. Your ethical decision-making gets clearer, stronger, better–not just for you but for those you befriend with real Christian love. Paul is smiling somewhere…