08/27/F – Rights and Right

Lamentations 2:1-19; Philemon 1:4-25; Psalms 101:1-3; Proverbs 22:5-6

NT: “For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I became his father while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you — I am sending my very own heart. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will. For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave — as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (‭‭Philemon‬ ‭1:8-18‬ ‭CSB)

This, the shortest of Paul’s epistles, was written during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. This letter was most likely delivered, along with the letter to the Colossians, by Tychicus and Onesimus. The Epistle to the Colossians was for the church at large, and this letter was sent specifically with Onesimus and written directly to Philemon.

Philemon was likely a somewhat wealthy member of the church in Colosse. From what can be gathered in this letter, Philemon was probably lead to faith in Christ by Paul, and the Colossian church (or at least one of the fellowships) met in his house. Onesimus was one of Philemon’s household slaves who had either damaged or stolen some of Philemon’s property and run away. Upon fleeing Colosse, Onesimus ended up in Rome and encountered Paul, who ended up leading Onesimus to faith in Christ.

Slavery was an accepted practice and social reality in the Roman Empire. Slaves were the property of their masters and had no rights. Under Roman law, runaway slaves could be severely punished and even sentenced to death. Any free citizen of Rome who found a runaway slave could assume custody and intercede with the owner.

While Onesimus was still legally a slave, he was also now a fellow brother in Christ. Paul’s desire in writing this letter was to see Philemon forgive Onesimus and receive him, not as returned property, but as a brother in Christ. Between the lines of this letter is the dichotomy between rights and doing what is right. Under the law, Philemon had rights to Onesimus and a legal way that he could respond to Onesimus’ return. Paul, as a Roman citizen and Apostolic authority in the church, also had rights. Instead of claiming his rights, Paul sent Onesimus back to Colosse, with the hope that Philemon would also do what was right instead of claiming his rights. Paul acted out of love for both Onesimus and Philemon. He asked Philemon to respond out of his love for Paul and a love for his new brother in Christ, Onesimus.

In the United States, rights are very important to us. Our nation was founded on the idea of rights under God, and we fought for our independence from a tyrannical King who routinely violated our rights. As wonderful as rights are, we must realize that the ways of God’s kingdom trump the rights afforded us in the constitution. Just because we have the right to do or not do something, it doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do or not do. As redeemed disciples of Christ who have been shown extraordinary love, mercy and grace, we are called first to live righteously according to the word, will and ways of our Lord and King, even if we have the legal right in our nation to do something else.

Psalms: “I will sing of faithful love and justice; I will sing praise to you, Lord. I will pay attention to the way of integrity. When will you come to me? I will live with a heart of integrity in my house. I will not let anything worthless guide me. I hate the practice of transgression; it will not cling to me.” (‭‭Psalms‬ ‭101:1-3‬ ‭CSB)

This psalm was written by David, King of Israel, most likely near the beginning of his reign. In a way, this psalm could be seen as David’s inaugural address. As King, David had expanded rights and privileges. There were even things that he could do and get away with because he was King. However, David knew that as King of God’s people, he was called to be God’s representative on earth and rule the way God would rule. Though he had rights, he set those rights aside for righteousness. Though there were things that he could get away with, David chose to live with a heart of integrity – before God and before the people. The same can and should be true of us. We are representatives of God and Christ here on earth. Though we may have rights and things we can legally get away with, we should always endeavor to walk in righteousness and integrity of heart by grace through faith in Christ.

Prayer: Lord, I thank You that You didn’t treat me in the way that I deserved under the law. Instead of demanding my life, You gave Your life so that I could have life abundant and eternal in You. You acted righteously with love and mercy – and You showed me great grace. Help me, through Your Holy Spirit, as I submit to Your word, will and ways, to always do what is right, even if I have the legal right to do something else. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

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