Saturday, October 29, 2011

Philemon: Age to age, Paul's still the same

And so at last I come to Philemon, and prepare to say goodbye to Paul, who (except Jesus of course) is the most dominant character of the New Testament and has shaped the hearts and minds of western civilization more than any other person.

He has changed so much since we met him back in Acts. Then he was a young zealot holding the cloaks for murderers; now (in II Timothy) he is an old man begging his "son" to bring him one. Then he was imprisoning Christians; now he himself is imprisoned for Christ. Surely the Lord kept his promise to Ananias to show Paul "how he will suffer for my name." Then Paul cared only for orthodox Jewish purity; now he begs a Gentile master to allow a Gentile slave to stay with him and keep him company and help him fulfill his lifelong calling of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles.

But no - he's not "begging" Philemon to let Onesimus stay with him. He is, well, demanding. Nicely. Kind of. Oh let's be honest Paul has always been a goal-oriented Alpha Male and he will be one until the day he dies. Shy and retiring and accepting and complacent, he will never be. God left his personality unchanged, choosing instead to clothe him in a new, Christ-like character suited for his new lifelong occupation.

As a father, I don't want or expect Tim, Joe or Imani to change who they are (in broad, non-limiting strokes): Tim the deep thinker, Joe the helper, Imani the social leader. But I pray God dress them in clothes of divine love, truth, power and special purpose. And I hope they will pray the same for me.

I love the Philemon/Onesimus/Paul story as it unfolds in this first-person correspondence. It is moving and even funny. It reminds me of the part in Les Miserables where the escaped prisoner and silverware thief Jean Valjean meets the godly bishop and is treated with such love that he too becomes a minister of grace. (Perhaps a Hugonauts among my friends knows if Philemon was the inspiration.) And the funny part is Paul's SHAMELESS guilt-tripping and arm-twisting of his squirming, slave-owning friend, to get something he really wants. I can imagine Paul saying in a husky voice, "Philemon my good friend - I will make you an offer you can' refuse." In prison or imprisoning, Paul has always been the godfather.

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