Lessons in Mercy and Forgiveness: An Introduction to the Letter of Saint Paul to Philemon
The following is an excerpt from Living the Word Catholic Women’s Bible
At its heart, Saint Paul’s letter to Philemon is a plea for undeserved mercy and forgiveness. It is a story to which we can easily relate because we are all sinners before God, Who has shown us mercy and asks us to forgive others in turn.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN
Philemon is one of Paul’s four captivity epistles (Philemon, Colossians, Philippians, and Ephesians) written in AD 60–64 during his first Roman imprisonment. For many, the most difficult thing about this letter is finding it in the Bible because it is only twenty-five verses long! And yet those verses tell quite a story.
Philemon is a slave owner living near Colossae, whose runaway slave, Onesimus, has sought refuge with Paul, who converts and baptizes him. Ironically, the name Onesimus means “useful,” and although Onesimus is now useless to Philemon, he can be of help to Paul in spreading the Gospel. With Paul in prison, Onesimus can be Paul’s hands and feet.
Paul does not want to proceed without Philemon’s permission; however, sending Onesimus back is risky. In the first century, recovered runaways were often killed. For this reason, Paul writes to Philemon, begging him not only to forgive Onesimus for running away, but to release him entirely, treating Onesimus as a brother in Christ. Paul pointedly reminds Philemon that it was he who baptized Philemon, releasing him from his own slavery to Satan, sin, and death. Paul expects Philemon to show Onesimus the same undeserved forgiveness that Philemon has received from God. Confident of Philemon’s obedience and anticipating his release from prison, Paul plans an upcoming visit with Philemon and Onesimus.
- Greetings (vv. 1-3)
- Thanksgiving (vv. 4-7)
- Paul’s Appeal to Philemon to Free Onesimus (vv. 8-22)
- Greetings and Benediction (vv. 23-25)
Take It to Heart:
In this letter, Paul reminds Philemon of his debt to God that was forgiven in his baptism and asks that he show the same mercy to Onesimus who is now his brother in Christ. Do you show the same mercy to others that God has shown to you? Is there someone God is asking you to forgive?
For Further Reflection:
For more on mercy and forgiveness, see also Matthew 6:12; Luke 6:36; and Ephesians 4:31-32.
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