Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Authority and Love

Paul's letter to Philemon is poetic brilliance, and if you haven't seen that yet - read it until you do. Paul is cheeky, the way so many of us want to be, and he really shows a human side of himself that is still love and grace but is also flesh and relationship.

It's easy to read right over this letter and think it's just about Paul wanting Philemon to welcome back the slave Paul's been borrowing (Onesimus) and be nice to the guy. Like any standard property exchange contract...

Except it's not.

Paul's letter to Philemon has a theme, just like all of his other letters, and it's not "What a nice guy Onesimus is." The theme to Paul's letter is that God has given you authority, but whenever you can, use love. So then, of course, it's tongue-in-cheek (a bit) when Paul writes that he won't even remind Philemon that he owes Paul his very life. Rather, he'll just ask nicely and count on brotherly fellowship to be enough.

But these are exactly the kind of words a master ought to hear. Someone who's in charge over a lot of thing. Someone with a lot of resources, a lot of property, and a large household. Philemon is a guy who has authority, certainly; that's clear by the status of who he is. So Paul reminds him that that's cool - God pours out His blessings however He chooses and has given Philemon this kind of authority.

But if you really want to knock the world's socks off, Paul says, don't use your authority; use love instead. And then lays down the example mentioned above.

It makes you wonder what Paul knows about Philemon that we don't. Onesimus has been with Paul for awhile, tending and caring for him. Persons talk. It's completely reasonable to believe that Onesimus has been telling stories as he's washed Paul's wounds, talking about the way that his master talked to him. The way his master talked to everyone. The way he ran this or did that or wanted something else in just a certain way.

That doesn't mean Onesimus was grumbling. It's okay to talk about things that happen and the way persons act without placing a value judgment on it. It's okay to be like, "Hey, this is just how things are. This is my story. This is my life. These are the expectations others have on me." In fact, it's healthy. It's about just being authentic and being real about this life that we live and this world that we live it in. So I don't want to create the impression that the slave was in any way complaining, necessarily, about his master, even if he was talking about him. I'm certain Paul appreciated the small talk and the little touch of home and a normal life that it brought him.

For whatever reason, though, Paul had the idea that Philemon needed these words about authority and love, needed to be reminded about the higher law and the way that God's economy really works. And they are words that we still need.

No, most of us aren't masters, and we certainly don't own slaves. But we've been taught that the way to live is with full authority. We're supposed to have our thumbs on our lives at all times, running everything just the way we want it and declaring that this is good because it is, after all, our life and so we are its master. That means that what Paul says, and the way he says it, applies just as much to us today as it did to Philemon.

Authority is cool - God pours out His blessings however He chooses and has given us the authority that we have.

But if you really want to make a splash of things, if you really want to do something meaningful in the world, if you really want to knock this world's socks off, you don't need your authority.

Use love. 

No comments:

Post a Comment