Paul’s Letter to Philemon
The Bible says that, as Christians, we are called to spread the gospel. While conservative Christians believe that that means winning souls to Christ, as progressive Christians we accept the legitimacy of other religions and we believe that Christianity is not the only pathway to God so what does spreading the gospel mean for us?
I believe that it means that we are called to create a society grounded in justice; that we are called to convince others to follow paths of forgiveness, mercy, and compassion; and that we are called to urge people toward reconciliation and peace. In other words, I believe that we are called not to change people’s religious creeds but to change people’s hearts and minds and move them toward the kind of love for others that we have learned in Christ. That’s not an easy task — it’s hard enough to practice love ourselves let alone convincing others to show grace — so if we are to be successful in our calling, it is essential that we learn what I am going to term “the art of persuasion.”
You can’t convince someone to be more loving by hammering them over the head with hate; you can’t convince someone to be more accepting of our differences by yelling in their faces and calling them stupid for what they believe; and you can’t bring peace by going to war with your adversary. To move the world toward greater compassion for one another, you have to use compassion to accomplish that goal, which means you have to learn the art of persuasion so that they themselves will want to make the change toward love.
What is the art of persuasion? Do you remember some years back when Robert Fulghum wrote a popular book called, “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?” My sermon today is titled, “Everything I Need to Know about the Art of Persuasion I Learned from My Dogs.”
As most of you know, I have two dogs, Dexter and Cody, who are in many ways the Yin and Yang of dogdom. Dexter loves people; Cody has social anxiety. Dexter is easy-going and little fazes him; Cody obsesses over the smallest problems and will lick his feet raw out of worry. Dexter lives to please me; Cody doesn’t require my good opinion to be happy.
The other day, for example, I needed to mow my back lawn. My back lawn is fenced in to keep my dogs from wandering out of the yard into the road so in order to mow, I have to open the gate to bring the mower in. Dexter was in the back yard watching me intently so before I opened the back gate, I said to him, “Stay.” Dexter plopped his rear end on the ground and waited obediently. I opened the gate and went to the shed for the lawn mower but when I went in the shed, I noticed that I hadn’t properly hung my gardening tools from earlier in the day so I spent several minutes tidying up the interior of the shed. Finally, having gotten everything back into proper order, I grabbed the lawn mower and headed back to the yard having by that time completely forgotten about Dexter. He, however, had not forgotten me or my instructions because there he was not having moved an inch. I had told him to stay and he was staying.
Now, if it had been Cody in the back yard, I would have handled things quite differently. Cody is also a very obedient dog…. but only as long as I have my eyes locked on him. If I had opened the gate and left Cody unattended while I poked about in the shed, he would have have been out of the yard, down the driveway, and off on his own adventure seconds after I took my eyes off of him. Cody’s favorite place to be is a place he knows he’s not supposed to be and the more I yell at him for leaving the yard, the more enticing leaving the yard becomes to him.
“What is it out there that you don’t want me to see?” he wonders, and driven by his insatiable curiosity, he takes every chance he can to escape my oversight. Moreover, when I see that he has escaped, I have learned that no amount of calling, no threats or yelling, no stern entreaties will get Cody to return to me if he is enjoying his expedition. The only thing that works is to play on Cody’s FOMO — his fear of missing out — and so I catch his attention, stretch out my hand and say, “Look Cody. Look what I have,” and if I make what I have sound intriguing enough, he will wander back to investigate my hand where I can take him by the collar and bring him back to the house. (I do then give him a treat to reward him for finally coming back to me.)
This is the art of persuasion. Just as it is with my dogs, so too we have to learn what motivates a person so that they decide that changing is something they want to do. Everyone is different and everyone has different motivations, different fears, and different priorities. To persuade someone to change — to become more just or compassionate or merciful, you have to listen to that person as much as you talk to them so that you can address not only what you want them to do but also what fears and concerns are keeping them from doing it. You have to find ways of making people personally invested in the outcome you desire so that pursuing justice and peace is not just something that makes sense, but it is something that makes sense for them.
The Reverend Gene Bartlett who was President of Colgate Rochester Divinity School during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s said, “The number of times when life is changed because we were convinced something was a good idea is comparatively small. But the number of times when it changed because the pain of not changing became unbearable is comparatively large.”
The art of persuasion is the art of learning how to listen so that we know how to convince people that the pain of injustice is more unbearable than the pain of justice; the pain of holding on to old wounds is more unbearable than the pain of forgiveness; the pain of intolerance is more unbearable than the pain of learning to accept human diversity; the pain of remaining entrenched in fear and hatred is more unbearable than the pain of practicing compassion. We have to find ways of making people invested in the outcome so that pursuing justice and peace is not just something that makes sense, but something that makes sense for them.
And this is what Paul does in the scripture I read for today. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a model of the art of persuasion.
The Letter to Philemon is the only letter of Paul’s that we have that was a private correspondence rather than a letter to a church. Paul is writing to Philemon because Philemon is the owner of a slave named Onesimus who is now living in the town where Paul is imprisoned. Most scholars assume from the tone of Paul’s letter that Onesimus is a runaway slave which would mean that Onesimus is facing an uncertain future. Slavery in ancient Rome was, as it is in every age, “a brutal, violent and dehumanizing institution, where slaves were seen as akin to animals.” Romans were especially obsessed with runaway slaves and there were professional slave-catchers that owners could hire to hunt down the escapees. When the runaway slave was found, their punishment was severe and their owner might even make them wear an iron collar like a dog engraved with instructions on what would happen if they escaped again. (1) We wish Paul could have just denounced the laws that gave Philemon the right to enslave Onesimus but Paul realizes that a righteous rant against Philemon isn’t going to save this runaway. Philemon is a wealthy Roman who has a reputation to maintain among his associates, and showing mercy toward a runaway slave isn’t going to sit well with Philemon’s friends, so Paul practices the art of persuasion by reminding Philemon of other things he has at stake in this issue.
“I write this letter to you, Philemon, my good friend and companion in this work,” Paul begins and then adds, “Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, ‘Oh, thank you, God!’ I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other Christians.”
This is not simple flattery that Paul is employing here; he is reminding Philemon that his reputation among his Roman associates is not the only reputation in jeopardy. Paul knows that Philemon also values his standing in the church where he is known to be a great example of discipleship and a beloved partner of the apostle, and so while punishing a runaway slave may elevate Philemon in the eyes of his wealthy associates, it will lower him in the estimate of Paul and his church. Paul makes Philemon recognize that any injustice toward Onesimus will have painful results for Philemon as well.
Paul then continues by couching his request as a favor between friends: “I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary, but I’d rather make it a personal request,” Paul says, again acknowledging that he wants Philemon to be personally invested in this choice. He is hoping not just for acquiescence from Philemon but for a change in heart.
Finally, Paul says, “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment…. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you…. If you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” With these words, Paul changes the nature of Onesimus’ and Philemon’s relationship and invites Philemon to see Onesimus not as property but as someone who has the potential to be like a son to him working alongside Philemon in the work Philemon and Paul are doing for Christ.
“You might lose a slave,” Paul tells Philemon, “but you will gain a son.” He has shown Philemon how welcoming Onesimus back with forgiveness and grace will not only be good for Onesimus; but it will also be good for Philemon.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a model in the art of persuasion, even to the very last sentences. As he closes the letter, Paul adds the final flourish by saying to Philemon, “I know you well enough to know you will do this and in fact, expect that you’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written.”
“Your grace far exceeds my own,” Paul says to Philemon providing Philemon with a huge investment in changing his heart toward his runaway slave. Philemon has the chance to prove that he is not only the man Paul believes him to be but that he is a man who will go all beyond all else and all others for Christ.
How could Philemon not be changed by this letter?
We are called by Christ to to create a society grounded in justice; to convince others to follow paths of forgiveness, mercy, and compassion; and to urge people toward reconciliation and peace. We will not accomplish that by hammering them over the head with angry words, by yelling in their faces and calling them stupid for what they believe; or by ordering them to change. To move the world toward greater compassion for one another, we must learn the art of persuasion so that pursuing justice and peace is not just something that makes sense, but is something that makes sense for them.
May Paul’s letter to Philemon be our model as we learn to practice the art of persuasion in the name of Christ.