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  • Writer's pictureAllison Wilcox

Life and Law Pt. 2

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,   To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.  For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. ~ Philemon 1-21

Philemon is an epistle with a troubling history. It was one of the Biblical texts mishandled by theologians trying to find ways to justify enslavement of Africans. Their rationalization was, "Hey look...Paul sent a slave back to his master. So, we should be doing that for runaway slaves here!"

Now, I could easily and confidently explain how these old theologians not only missed the point of this story of reconciliation, but also twisted it for their own ends.

But regardless of what Philemon actually means, the reality is that it has been read and sometimes is continued to be read as a way to justify and use the law in ways that are decidedly NOT life-giving.

And that makes me think of all the other texts in the Bible that have been used to justify decidedly NOT life-giving things.

Places where the law has been used to persecute rather than to protect.

Places where God's law was used to punish rather than pardon.

Places where God's law was used to penalize rather than pacify.

God gives the law for life. Life here for Philemon meant taking Onesimus as a brother rather than a slave.

Life for us begins as well when we see the law as something to solidify and strengthen relationships.

Lord help me to use your law for life, not as ways to subjugate others. Amen

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