Our sense of justice tends to be subjective. One thing I’ve learned working with kids is that injustice is okay with them as long as it goes in their favor. If something is unfair to them, well, you’ll certainly hear about it. But, kids are learning and so we bear with them as they mature.
Some may read Paul’s letter to Philemon and think why is the Apostle treating this slave owner with kid gloves? Is it because he’s wealthy and has a church in his home? Maybe it’s because Paul is buddies with Phil? After all, there are times in his writings that Paul tears into people for their own good. He told the Corinthians to stop being spiritual babies (1st Corinthians 3:1-2). Judging other people for their sins is a nasty habit to get into, and Paul lets the church know about it (Romans 2:1-5). He confronted Peter in front of many people about his lack of integrity (Galatians 2:11-14).
So, these few verses in Philemon could seem out of character for the fiery Apostle (Philemon 8-16). He forgoes his right to command Philemon to do what is right. And, he jokes around with Phil! In verse 11, where you read useless, Paul is making a pun. The name Onesimus means “useful”. A Greek synonym is chrestos (used here), which sounds almost identical to Christos, or Christ in English. Paul is saying that initially Onesimus had been “Christ-less” (useless), but now he is “Christ-full” (useful) to both Paul and Philemon. Paul’s contemporaries got a kick out of that, to be sure.
In verse 19, Paul teases Philemon. After saying that Phil doesn’t owe him anything, he jokingly points out that Philemon’s salvation came as the result of Paul’s efforts. This letter is far from a lecture.
Every morning a woman walks past my office window with two Yorkshire Terriers. One is on a leash and the other isn’t. The minuscule canine on the leash barks at everything: squirrels, trees, cars (some parked), the dumpster, the couch that’s been sitting by the dumpster for weeks, curious pastors looking out their windows, etc. But, the dog that is free from restraint follows closely by the master, occasionally sniffing a few blades of grass or glancing at a bird flying to a nearby branch.
The calm dog may have needed the leash at one time. It would be unfair to him if his freedom to explore the world were to be restricted because the other dog isn’t ready to handle the daily strolls with the same maturity.
Because Philemon has lived his spiritual journey with integrity, Paul gives him the chance to grow further by giving him the freedom to get it right on his own. Paul isn’t being unjust to the Corinthians, Romans, and Peter. He’s being just with Philemon.
If you’re still in the phase where you need a lecture, don’t waste your time with envy. Get past the basics of your faith and God will find great pleasure in giving you freedom to explore what it means to live life to the fullest extent.