William H. Kelley
There is an interesting book in the Bible, Paul's letter to Philemon. This is about three pages long and is one of the few actually written by Paul. Most have been physically written by his secretary John or Mark or Timothy or someone unknown. This was not a letter to a church in Ephesus or Corinth, but rather a personal letter to a friend. Paul had converted Philemon to the faith in Jesus. Philemon was well-to-do and had a large house in Colossae, the church used to meet in his house. He also had slaves.
One of his slaves was named Onesimus, meaning useful. Onesimus had run away and had gone to the sea to sail to another country to escape punishment. There he met St. Paul, who was now in jail again, and Paul had converted him to the faith of Jesus.
Paul now is writing to Philemon to ask a favor. He starts out with a familiar "how's the wife and kids?' Well not quite, but he does ask about some common friends. Paul then asks for a favor. He is sending Onesimus back to Philemon and ask that Philemon forgive him and not only that, accept him not as a slave, but as a brother.
Apparently Onesimus took a few shekels with him when he escaped, as Paul offers to pay back anything that may be owed. The letter is a master of persuasion which you can read for yourself.
Philemon had a problem.
What would that do to the other slaves and what would Philemon say when the other slave owners met? How are you going to maintain discipline if you do not apply the death penalty to keep them in their place? Not only skip the death penalty, but even accept him in the main house as a family member.
Philemon could write back and tell he had done it, but not do it. But Paul asks that the guest room be made up as he expected to drop by very soon. So Paul could see for himself. Chances are Philemon would show the letter to their mutual friends who would be meeting for church services in his house, and they would notice.
I wonder what Onesimus thought of that idea?
Isn't that the same problem that we all have because of the demands of our faith? How do we accept those who are not in our social circle as a brother or sister? How do we feel if we are the one being accepted and forgiven?
The Rev. William H. Kelley, C.S.C., is priest at Sacred Heart St Francis deSales Catholic Church in Bennington.