Paul’s letter to Philemon is unique in the New Testament. It is a personal letter about a personal matter of concern to Paul. He must have been a prolific letter writer, but this is the only such letter to survive. It concerns a slave, Onesimus, who ran away from his master and possibly even stole from him. It is estimated that there were sixty million plus slaves in the Roman Empire. The economic strength of the empire was built on slavery. What Onesimus has done is punishable by death.
Onesimus flees to Rome to lose himself in the big city. Paul is under house arrest there, waiting for his trial. Somehow the runaway slave meets Paul, is converted and baptized, and begins to serve Paul’s needs. Then the full story comes out. Paul finds out that Onesimus is a runaway slave of Philemon who Paul himself had converted and baptized! It’s a small world.
With a fine sense of justice Paul decides to send Onesimus back to his master, Philemon. He carries with him a letter written in Paul’s own hand. Paul asks Philemon to accept his slave back as "a brother…in the Lord" and to "welcome him as you would me". Isn’t this the challenge each of us has when someone has harmed us? To forgive and to remember that the other person is my "brother in the Lord" is the hallmark of a faithful Christian. Philemon remains the master and Onesimus remains his slave, but the quality and tone of their relationship is forever changed. They are "brothers in the Lord".
Fr. Michael Hoolahan, C.P. is on the staff of Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.