February 19, 2021
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
In light of Ash Wednesday, we’re going to cover the next two pieces of the criticism sandwich in one reflection. If you remember from Monday, we looked at how Paul begins a difficult conversation with a godly perspective of who Philemon is. That tone and attitude sets the trajectory for everything to follow. It’s a model we should follow when we are in conflict.
But now, we see the conflict laid out. Paul is asking Philemon to embrace the message bearer – Onesimus – as a brother in Christ. But there are a couple important layers to the story. First, Onesimus had stolen from Philemon and run away to Rome. So he’s not coming back expecting to be welcomed with open arms. Paul is asking Philemon to do a hard thing – one that goes against law and common sense. But even more incredible, we see that Paul has the authority, should he choose, to dictate Philemon’s response. Instead he makes it a request.
His difficult request, too, carries with it a righteousness we should emulate. Look at the foundation he builds his hard conversation on. “I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” He describes himself as an old man and a prisoner. He appeals on behalf of another. And he tries to find common ground with Philemon – that Onesimus is useful to both of them.
Think of the last hard conversation or conflict you had. Did you appeal with love? Did you humble yourself? Did you try to find common ground? Sadly, if I think back over my last week, I can think of at least one argument where I displayed none of these characteristics. How different is Paul’s perspective from our usual arguments where we are selfish, proud, and stand in opposition to the person across from us? If we’re engaged in a criticism sandwich conversation, even the difficult middle should be saturated with God’s mercy.
And then Paul ends his letter with another, positive communication.
Vs. 21-22 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Paul reaffirms that he believes the best about Philemon, and anticipates him going above and beyond. He also re-initiates relationship, saying he hopes to come and visit. I love the idea of closing an argument, conflict, or criticism with a reaffirmation of the strength of the relationship, and a commitment to pursuing friendship and intimacy. What an extraordinary way to end an argument. He essentially says, “Look, I know I asked you to do something really hard. I believe in you, and I’m committed to seeing this out to the end.” If only all of our conflicts carried that tone.