In many Christian churches and most assuredly in churches that follow a church calendar, Lent is a season of penitence. During this penitential season, we admit that we have sin or transgressed against God and we are sorry for those transgressions. While repenting of our sins against God is necessary, perhaps the truth of Lent is more than telling God we are sorry. Possibly, we must tell individuals that we have wronged that we are sorry. Below is a story from the Bible that exemplifies how a sinner confessed his sin to the person he wronged.
The story of Onesimus is told in a letter from Paul to Philemon. On a missionary journey Paul met Philemon in Colosse and led Philemon to a saving belief in Christ. The Bible is silent on whether Paul encountered Onesimus at this time. Assuredly Onesimus knew about Paul and the new Christian faith his owner embraced.
Onesimus was a runaway slave who belonged to Philemon. When Onesimus ran from Philemon, apparently, he stole money or valuables. Onesimus used the money to pay for passage on a ship bound for Rome. Rome was a frequent destination of runaway slaves. In a population of one million people, it was easy to remain hidden; however, Onesimus didn’t remain hidden from his destiny.
Paul was in Rome under house arrest (59-61/62 AD) when Onesimus arrived there. Onesimus heard Paul, or another missionary, preach. He converted to Christianity. Soon Onesimus began to help Paul with his ministry. Onesimus and Paul became so close that Paul described himself as Onesimus’ father and Onesimus as his child. Although they wanted to stay together, both agreed that Philemon had a prior claim on Onesimus. Onesimus must make restitution to Philemon. Onesimus returned to Philemon in Colosse. With him, Onesimus took a personal letter from Paul, begging Philemon to be lenient toward his runaway slave.
In the Roman Empire, slaves were property. The master of a runaway slave could treat the slave anyway he desired. Normal procedure was for owners to brand captured slaves on the forehead, maim them, or force them to fight wild beasts in a Roman arena. Being a Christian, Philemon wouldn’t have subjected Onesimus to such extreme punishment; however, he could have punished Onesimus, i.e., flogging, poor food and housing, or the worst jobs.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, Paul didn’t deny or negate the seriousness of Onesimus’ actions when he ran from Philemon; yet, Paul asked Philemon to forgive Onesimus. Although the Bible doesn’t say so, very likely Onesimus also told Philemon he was sorry that he stole from him and ran away from him. Onesimus took personal accountability for his sins against his master. Onesimus returning to Philemon was a step in demonstrating Onesimus’ repentance.
Most of us will never be a slave who ran away from a master, yet, often we steal valuable belongings from friends and acquaintances. We rob them of their good name when we gossip about them. Some individuals even rob a man or woman of their spouse or the love of children. These sins are as egregious as a valuable run-away slave. Lent is a great time to free ourselves of the sins we committed against others.
Reflection: God requires us to make peace with anyone we wronged prior to making peace with him (Matthew 5:23-24).