By Russ Ramsey
Philemon has something you don’t often find in Scripture: some comedy. In verses 18–20, Paul takes on Onesimus’s debts. Whatever Onesimus might have owed Philemon is now Paul’s to repay. Here’s the comedy. Paul leaves it for Philemon to call that debt in with a question I’d paraphrase like this: “Onesimus’s debt is now mine, Philemon. I’ll repay it. But don’t forget, I gave you the gospel, so you owe me your life. In light of the fact that I’ve taken his debt and you owe me your life, tell me, how much do I owe you?” (vv.17–20).
That right there is funny. But it’s also rightly serious. Paul wants Philemon to do for Onesimus what Paul did for Philemon: set him free. Relationships are costly. If two people walk the same road together for any length of time at all, they will inevitably end up hurting one another at some point. Spouses, friends, folks at church—no one is exempt.
For love’s sake, Onesimus and Paul agreed that Onesimus needed to be reconciled to Philemon. As his drive to escape led Onesimus to flee 1,200 miles to get away from Philemon, his drive to be reconciled has now set him on a 1,200-mile return. But it wasn’t just Onesimus who needed to be set free. Paul would’ve been glad to keep him around, but they knew there is a debt they owe Philemon. They owe it to Philemon to invite him to receive Onesimus as a brother, to forgive whatever grievances he might be feeling too. They can’t withhold this opportunity from him.
Forgiveness is a work of liberation. Every one of us has, at one time or another, borne the pain of someone else’s anger, bitterness, or disappointment, just as we have taken others captive by our own. This is where forgiveness comes in. To forgive is not merely to dismiss an offense. It is to release someone, so that we might both live in freedom. Forgiveness is a fuel that spurs us forward. That’s how Paul characterizes the choice before Philemon. If Philemon forgives Onesimus, he will take him back no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother. Not only is his past pardoned, but his future finds a renewed purpose.
Who are you harming with your actions, emotions, or even lack of forgiveness? What would it look like for you to set them free? And how would it set you free? Forgiveness will cost you. It may cost you money or possessions. It may cost you even more, maybe your image and reputation. And it may even open up an entire underworld of unforgiveness locked deep inside your heart.
But by God’s grace, the act of forgiveness might draw you into a place where you have to wrestle with what you truly believe about the forgiveness of Christ, and you may begin to see traces of His presence you’ve never noticed before. Embrace the work of Christ in your life and in the lives of others. Forgive where there are offenses. Love each other in a future-bound direction. Grant to others a generous spirit that says, “Yes, brother, may I benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ” (v.20).
Written by Russ Ramsey