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Lessons in Mercy and Forgiveness: An Introduction to the Letter of Saint Paul to Philemon

By March 16, 2023April 3rd, 2023No Comments

Lessons in Mercy and Forgiveness: An Introduction to the Letter of Saint Paul to Philemon

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.


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.


  1. Greetings (vv. 1-3)
  2. Thanksgiving (vv. 4-7)
  3. Paul’s Appeal to Philemon to Free Onesimus (vv. 8-22)
  4. 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.

This excerpt from the Living the Word Catholic Women’s Bible was reprinted with permission of the publisher, Ave Maria Press.

For more information or to purchase Living the Word Catholic Women’s Bible click here: https://www.avemariapress.com/products/living-the-word-catholic-womens-bible

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Sandy Wanzeck

Sandy Wanzeck has been an instructor for the SJV Lay Division since 2012. She has an M.A. in Biblical Theology from the Augustine Institute and a B.A. in Business Administration from West Texas A & M University. Sandy is also a graduate of the Lay Division's four-year Denver Catholic Biblical School and two-year Catechetical School programs and is a certified “Discover Your God-Given Gifts” instructor. Sandy and her husband, Tom, are blessed to live in Denver near their three daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren.

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