Imagine if an employee of yours stole your property and skipped town, and the police brought him back with a letter from the Pope, personally addressed to you, saying that your employee had converted to Christianity in prison and encouraging you to welcome him into the family as a brother or son? That brings us a little closer to understanding the First Reading today. Paul met Onesimus, an escaped slave, in prison and helped him become Christian, then sent him back to his Christian owner with a letter of recommendation and an appeal for his freedom.
Paul already knew Onesimus’s owner, Philemon, and wanted Philemon to welcome Onesimus back not just as a free brother in Christ, but a freed brother. At the same time, Paul didn’t want to order him to do it; he wanted him to freely welcome back his slave as a member of the family. In Paul’s time slaves were the property of their owners, who had the power of life or death over them. The Romans were very harsh on escaped slaves. We’re not sure how this letter was received, but in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (4:9) he mentions Onesimus once again as a “faithful and beloved brother” to them, an encouraging sign that Philemon did the right thing in the end.
When someone wrongs us we can be very exacting in terms of expecting them to make amends for what they’ve done. We can “chain” them in our expectations of how they should treat us after mistreating us. Yet, for a Christian, the first question should not be, “how will you repay me,” but, rather, “are you sorry for what you have done?” If someone is truly sorry they’ll make restitution as best as they can, and, like Philemon, let’s not be a taskmaster about it, but a brother in Christ.
Readings: Philemon 7–20; Psalm 146:7–10; Luke 17:20–25. See also 32nd Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday.