It seems we humans never tire of talking about Freedom. But what is freedom? During a dark time in human history slavery of one form or another was the norm in human societies. Our own nation, The United States, fought a war with ourselves over this blight on human history. We even now have “Black History Month” in February of each year to raise awareness of the contributions to our common history of these fellow citizens.
I sometimes wonder if our problem with this seemingly endless parade of grievances and counter-grievances lies in the wrong definition of freedom. You see, freedom isn’t the ability to choose. No, the ability to choose, or free will, only makes freedom possible. When you exercise your ability to choose wrongly, you enslave yourself to your passions. So freedom is always about choosing wisely. Choosing poorly always leads to addiction and death. We are only truly free when we choose well.
Look at our lesson today in Philemon 1:1-25:
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may promote the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an ambassador and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my child, Onesimos, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.
Today we read the whole “book” of Philemon. What an amazing letter this is from St. Paul to St. Philemon about St. Onesimos. The Apostle writes to the spiritual son, who is a wealthy man and a slave-owner, about a runaway slave who would later become a bishop and a saint himself! Hollywood couldn’t tell as good a story!
And look how St. Paul appeals to his spiritual son. He says that he could command Philemon to do the right thing, but that wouldn’t be as spiritually profitable for any of them. Rather, St. Paul appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimos back as St. Paul’s “son” in the Lord, making Philemon and Onesimos spiritual brothers! Paul even insists that he would rather have kept Onesimos with him while he was in prison but didn’t want to do anything without Philemon’s consent. Amazing grace and maximum room for action and repentance! and Philemon is now on the hook to exercise his ability to choose!
Let’s unpack the implications of Paul’s letter to Philemon:
First. Paul deals with reality. We can easily read back into history the current morality of our age and really miss the point here. St. Paul isn’t condoning slavery at all. In fact, it was the growth of the Christian faith in the Roman Empire that mitigated the harsh realities of slavery in that culture. But Paul isn’t going to pretend either that this accepted cultural situation didn’t exist. In fact, Paul will use this very reality to confront both Philemon and Onesimos with the radically different perspectives of the Faith of Christ on relationships between people with different power dynamics.
Next, Paul puts the onus on Philemon to actively press out the implications of his claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ. And he does this by insisting that Philemon deal with the reality of the change that has now come to our relationships because we follow Christ. Paul makes it clear that, as Philemon’s spiritual father, he could demand obedience. But Paul takes another route in insisting that the right exercise of our ability to choose is more beneficial to everyone involved than mere power. Paul insists that Philemon deal with Onesimos as a fellow brother in Christ. That reality trumps all other social constructs!
Finally, Paul insists that Onesimus go back to Philemon. Not as a slave to slave-owner, but as brother to brother. This invites Onesimus to also exercise his ability to choose to see Philemon in a different light as well. All involved are invited, out of love and fatherly desire to deal with the new life in Christ, to confront this radically changed situation.
Today, do you understand freedom as merely your ability to choose, or are you ready to confront this reality that, if you are going to be free as God created you to be free, you are going to have to exercise your ability to choose based on wisdom and not simply your desires? Being Orthodox on Purpose means choosing well!
P.S. Dear Lord, I thank You for creating me in Your Image, to be made into Your likeness. You are truly Free, O Lord. And You made me to experience and live in Your Freedom. But I use the free will You have given me wrongly and I end up becoming a slave to my fears or desires or false expectations. And this slavery is deeper than any outward slavery in human history. You call me to a focused and disciplined life SO THAT I will be free. Give me Your grace and strength, especially as we approach Great Lent, to be truly free by using my free will rightly. Amen