Note to the Reader – I encourage you to invest additional time reading the Book of Philemon in conjunction with this article.
Restoring and Rebuilding Broken Relationships
Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties of life is that of restoring a broken relationship. After all, when we have been burned, who really wants to open oneself to the possibility of being hurt – again. As it is said, “once bitten, twice shy.” Whether a relationship was fractured and/or the proverbial bridge was burned, it seems only natural for us to be hesitant to reestablish a relationship. The relationship type matters not, it could be friends, marriage, marketplace, schoolyard or workforce relationships. Most likely each of us can point to a relationship, even if a brief relationship, that ended tumultuously. A brief relationship seems easily dismissed, but when a long-term or important relationship is broken, what do we do when the faithless one wants to reestablish contact? While the book of Philemon does not specify the outcome, it points the way toward the ideal expectation of rebuilding relationships.
Paul’s Appeal to Philemon
Philemon was a man who got burned. He was burned by a runaway named Onesimus. While slavery is not practiced in the United States, when we read the epistle to Philemon we must recognize that Philemon was a slave owner, and Onesimus was one of his slaves. In that then current culture of Roman slavery, Onesimus demonstrated that he did not care what he meant to Philemon. Onesimus was a runaway and if anyone found him and learned that he was a runaway slave, they were to return him to his owner where the owner could punish the slave in any number of ways, including death. Philemon received injury from Onesimus, it matters not that Onesimus was a slave, Philemon had legal rights and Onesimus did not.
Paul’s letter to Philemon does not reveal Philemon’s economic interest in Onesimus, nor the workload that he was required to do. All we do know is that Onesimus went AWOL, and being Absent With Out Leave, even in our current military has its repercussions. Onesimus burned a bridge. He broke their relationship. In legal perspectives, Philemon could do anything he wanted to the returning Onesimus, even execute him for his treachery. As we look into this relationship, slavery is not intended to be lauded as an institution, it is just a matter of historical fact that Paul wrote to a man who was burned and was asked to rebuild a relationship.
Perhaps the deplorable institution of slavery serves as an intriguing backdrop to rebuilding relationships. Since we are only given Paul’s appeal and not Philemon’s response we can dream that Philemon worked through the anger and loss and reestablished the relationship unified in Christian ideals. Unfortunately, we can only surmise. However, what we do know is that Paul’s appeal asked Philemon to rebuild the relationship based on love. The King James states it as, “Yet for love’s sake…”1 and the Complete Jewish states it as, “…I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.”2
Paul is making the case that every relationship, even the one between a master and his runaway slave can be rebuilt based on love. Truly love is the golden chain that binds. It is the pillar by which the Gospel of John is known, “God so loved the world…”.3 Jehovah’s love is the bond that Christians in burned out relationships can depend on. His love makes dead people live. His love makes bad people good. His love makes useless people useful. It is to this love that Paul appeals.
Paul’s Appeal to Us
When we read Paul’s letter to Philemon it can seem so distant and unfamiliar. But when we consider than we have experienced or will experience tension in our relationships with our brethren, this letter to Philemon becomes very important to us. Each of us is human. That means that we each will trespass against Jehovah, but it also means that we will trespass against each other.
While Onesimus was not a Christian at the time he ran away and thereby trespassed against Philemon, when Onesimus became a Christian it did not remove his obligations to Philemon. Under Roman law, Philemon still owned Onemimus and that meant there was still a relationship. We could, if we desired, find means of not needing to follow the appeal of Paul to Philemon, but why toss it out on a technicality? Biblical love is not demonstrated when the legal system permits. Instead, biblical love calls each Christian to rise above the legal code and accept each other as brethren.
It has been said that “blood is thicker than water” indicating that family ties are not easily broken. This should be especially true of God’s family. God’s blood is thicker still than human bloodlines. It is with this perception that Paul appeals to Philemon, “for love’s sake I rather beseech… that thou shouldest receive him forever, not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved… in the flesh and in the Lord”.4 Reconnecting requires rebuilding and reestablishing the relationship with the trespassing brother/sister based on God’s love.
Perhaps there is no greater challenge for humanity than to love the trespasser. It was mentioned earlier how much God loved the world. Jehovah loves humanity so much that he gave Jesus as the price to reestablish the broken relationship between humanity and Jehovah. During his final teachings, Jesus is recorded as having said this to his disciples, “everyone will know that you are my [disciples] by the fact that you have love for each other.”5 The greatest love of all is to sacrifice one’s life for another,6 but perhaps the second greatest is demonstrating one’s love for his neighbor by rebuilding a broken relationship. We all trespass. We all fail. We all hurt each other. We all have been hurt. But demonstrating loving acceptance of God’s child, our brother/sister, reveals the heart of each Christian. May the Lord bless us with greater ability to forgive, forget, rebuild, and love.
1. “Love’s sake.” Philemon 1.9, King James Version.
2. “Basis of love.” Philemon 1.9, Link to NASB, Quote from the Complete Jewish Bible.
3. “God so loved the world.” John 3.16, NASB.
4. “For love’s sake…in the Lord.” Abridgement of Philemon 1.9-16, King James Version.
5. “Love for each other.” John 13.35, Link to NASB, Quote from the Complete Jewish Bible.
6. “Sacrifice, the greatest love.” John 15.13, NASB.