[B]ut I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. -- Philemon 1:14
Thursday, October 30, 2014
From Useless to Useful
There is not much virtue in our doing what we are obligated or compelled to do. Jesus spoke of the Roman law that said a soldier could compel a civilian to carry his pack a mile. At the mile marker, the bearer had a choice to put down the load or to carry it on to the next marker. If he chooses to continue, the bearer has another choice, for he can go the extra mile out of defiance and pride, or out of a Christ-like love for the man whose pack he carries.
It won’t look much different on the outside. The soldier may not respond positively. He may not care one way or the other. He may be suspicious of the bearer’s motives. The burden-bearer has no control over the other person’s reactions in the near term or over time.
However, the person who is willing to be meek and whose genuine desire is to love others will find that he is moving away from self and toward truth. Following Jesus means dying to self. A defiant, arrogant person – such as I am naturally – has all kinds of trouble with meekness and humility, and even love. A situation in which I am humbled to some degree is an opportunity to embrace the character of Christ by faith and hamstring the old nature.
The story of Paul’s letter to Philemon began when a slave named Onesimus – the name means “useful” – ran away from his master, Philemon, thereby becoming “useless”. Paul himself makes the wordplay on the name in verse eleven. Somehow, Onesimus came into contact with Paul and became a Christian. Paul is sending the letter to Philemon by the hand of this runaway. I could wish we had recorded for our edification the contents of the conversation between Paul and Onesimus in which the latter was convinced to return to his master.
Both men must face the challenge of putting down the old nature and responding in Christ to one another. Philemon has been wronged. We have Paul’s testimony of his Christian character. He is unlikely to have been harsh or unreasonable with his servant. Onesimus was likely discontented and rebellious. Perhaps he fled because he had stolen from his master. It reminds me a little of how Jean Valjean’s theft of silverware from the virtuous Bishop Myriel transformed his life in Les Miserables.
The one who has done the wrong and the one who was wronged, now being brothers in Christ, must be reconciled to one another, putting the old relationship and the old way of interacting into the past. They will go back to being master and slave in one sense. However, Onesimus will now be acting and serving out of the love of Christ for his master, and Philemon will receive the service and respond in turn more as a father to his once-wayward son.
I am not capable of understanding all the theological concepts involved. Concretely and pragmatically, I know that Jesus has set the example and provided me with the power to live and act in accordance with God’s will and purpose. If free will is not a reality then all of Christianity is a cosmic joke. Virtue, obedience, and goodness do not really exist for us.
But we know they do exist, and that acting out of love is the path to heaven, rough at times, always strait and narrow, sometimes with precipices on either side, but always true, and, however winding, always carrying us nearer to the heart of God.