Now that we have looked at the text and explored its meaning, the rest of the assignment, daunting though it may seem, must be grappled with. What, pray tell, is the main point of this epistle? What is the one shared truth of this letter?
Obviously, Paul wants to reconcile two people. He takes great care, however, to ensure that this reconciliation is not skin deep: He refuses to order Philemon to do what is right, and he even declares that though Philemon owes his very life to Paul, Paul will make good anything Onesimus owes. This good Paul wants for Philemon and Onesimus must be a free choice (which isn’t to say Paul doesn’t lay down a guilt trip—I’m a feeble old man in jail, and I know you love me, and I’m not going to order you. . .).
What is the main idea here? Beyond this particular instance, what can we say? Should we take a lesson from Paul and, when reconciling two parties, make sure it’s their choice to reconcile? Should we be encouraged to act as Paul is encouraging Philemon to act, that is, should we forgive and accept those who have wronged us into the Christian community as brothers? Should we be taking a note from Onesimus himself, willing to face those he once fled, reuniting with those he escaped in the hope of creating a better relationship?
We don’t know much about what is going on between Philemon (plus the church in Philemon’s house) and Onesimus. Was Onesimus a literal run away slave, or is that metaphorical language? We don’t know why Onesimus ran away, what Philemon would ordinarily do to Onesimus if Onesimus was returned; we do not even know how the situation resolved, if mercy won out in the end.
We know that Paul loved Onesimus on an intimate, and he also loved Philemon. We know that Paul was willing to send this Onesimus into a situation where Onesimus might face some serious hardship, and that Paul refrained from protecting him with commands and threats. This short epistle is seeping with love, love that is willing to be hurt. Paul says he is confident—he has exposed his very heart to Philemon!—not only that Philemon will obey, will do the good Paul hints at, but that Philemon will go beyond what Paul asks. Here is my heart, beloved brother, says Paul, refresh it!