I’ll be honest with you: Philemon has never been my favorite book of the Bible. I knew the story: Paul encouraged Philemon to welcome back his runaway slave Onesimus. Simple enough. But the letter was brief, seemingly hard to apply and dealt with the thorny topics.
But recently I was forced to wrestle with Philemon, study it and deal with its complexities. And I was blown away. Philemon taught me how the gospel restores tattered relationships. It challenged my generosity.
Most of all, Philemon taught me that the gospel brings radical equality.
Remember: Onesimus was a slave. While first-century slavery was different than the slavery we know from American history, it was still unjust and unfair. As a result, Onesimus was considered socially and economically inferior.
But when Onesimus encountered the gospel, everything changed.
- Onesimus had been an outcast, but Paul called him a “child” (Philemon 10).
- Onesimus had been Philemon’s “bondservant,” but now he was a “beloved brother ” (Philemon 16).
- Onesimus had been treated as sub-human, but now he was to be greeted like an apostle (Philemon 17)
With the gospel, the man who penned a third of the New Testament was no better than a runaway slave. The gospel brought a radical, Christ-centered equality.
At this point, most of us are nodding our heads in agreement. We think that inequality is bad and equality is good.
Yet practicing this truth is much harder than it seems.
Because we are experts at manufacturing inequality. We seek to frame our lives in such a way that we come out better than others. So we identify one of our perceived strengths — such as skin color, education, career success, theological knowledge, physical fitness, politics or heritage — and we make it the standard by which we judge others.
We declare ourselves the kings of our own kingdoms, and we render others inferior.
We are experts at manufacturing inequality.
It happens to all of us — no matter our station in life. Examine yourself:
- Seminary student, do you really believe you’re no better than high school dropout?
- Wealthy executive, do you really believe you’re no better than cleaning crew that takes out your trash?
- Political activist, do you really believe you’re no better than the party you oppose?
- Stay-at-home mom, do you really believe you’re no better than the mother who leaves her kids with a baby-sitter while she goes to her 9-to-5?
- Personal trainer, do you really believe you’re no better than your overweight neighbor?
- American, do you really believe you’re no better than an Iranian?
- Pastor, do you really believe you’re no better than the untrained deacon?
- Straight person, do you really believe you’re no better than someone who struggles with same-sex attraction?
Inequality is insidious. It creeps into our lives without our knowing.
Yet the gospel shatters inequality. The gospel tells us that we were all equally sinful before God. It reminds us that we all deserved God’s holy wrath. Yet it also points us to Jesus — who suffered and died so that we all could be forgiven.
You see, the gospel makes all our manufactured inequality seem petty. We are all the same at the cross: Black and white, blue-collar and white-collar, fat and thin, smart and dumb, even slave and apostle.
Inequality is insidious. It creeps into our lives without our knowing. Yet the gospel shatters inequality.
That’s why Paul could call a runaway slave his “son” and “brother.” That’s why Jesus taught us to love social outcasts like tax collectors, women, Gentiles and the poor. And that’s why you’re no better than anyone else.
The gospel gave Onesimus dignity, spurred him to reconcile with Philemon, and it may have even encouraged Philemon to free Onesimus (Philemon 12, 17-18, 21). So the gospel changed everything for Onesimus. And it can change everything for us.