17–23 September 2017.
In a big city, when we walk down the street we rarely pay attention to other people. Sometimes it’s like they aren’t even there. When we go shopping, we interact a little with the salespeople, but we still often don’t pay them much attention. We just hand over our money, then take our things and leave. We usually don’t pay much attention to the people around us who serve us, we don’t see them or talk to them much at all. And of course they don’t pay much attention to us either.
In the little letter of Philemon, this is an issue that Paul addresses. This is the only personal letter we have in the New Testament, written by Paul not to a church community but to an individual person: Philemon. What Paul discusses in this letter is the way that Philemon has treated his slave Onesimus. To Philemon, Onesimus simply counted as a slave, as an object, as a thing to be controlled and used. Maybe the only time Philemon really noticed Onesimus or paid attention to him was when Onesimus finally ran away. For Onesimus that’s a dangerous situation to be in, because when slaves run away they are subject to the death penalty if caught. Luckily, Onesimus meets Paul, and since Philemon (Onesimus’s owner) is a Christian, Paul sits down to write him a letter.
With surprising forcefulness and authority, Paul writes a very strong letter to Philemon telling him that the time has come for Philemon to change the way he looks at Onesimus. Maybe the world sees Onesimus as just a worthless slave – but as a Christian Philemon must see Onesimus as something more: as a person, as a child of God, or as Paul says in v. 16: no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother. And in his letter Paul lets Philemon know just how furious he will be if Philemon refuses to see Onesimus this way!
We know how much it hurts when people look at us like we’re nothing. People look at us and say things like: “You’re just a woman”; “You’re just a child”; “You’re just an old person”; “You’re just a shopkeeper”; “You’re just a secretary”; “You’re just one man, and you aren’t important at all.” But that is incredibly untrue! None of us are “just” anything. In the same way that Onesimus wasn’t “just” a slave, every one of us is so much more. We are human beings, we are images of God, we are God’s children. And so the next time someone treats you like Onesimus, like you are nothing, just remember: you are someone important. You are someone so valuable that God not only loved you, he died for you too.
Pastor Stephen Lakkis