Let Go of the Grudge
by Brenda Black
Ancient Rome, slaves had no rights. Neither did they receive any mercy if they defied authority. They were property and like any other commodity, viewed as disposable. But not before the master demonstrated his superiority with terrible punishments devised to inflict as much pain and humiliation as man could imagine. Slaves were crushed to death or had their hands, ears, feet, nose and lips cut off and their eyes cut out. Under Roman law, the owners of slaves were allowed to inflict whatever treatment or punishment they wanted on a slave without consequence.
In the tiny book of Philemon, probably written around AD 63, the apostle Paul begs for mercy for a runaway slave converted to Christianity. Philemon is a fellow laborer we're told in the very first verse. He has blessed many with his love and generosity. But Paul requests one greater display of Christ like compassion. He pleads with Philemon to forgive and take back a runaway slave, who accepted Christ under Paul's teaching.
“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. I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you.” (Philemon 1:10-12)
Before you begin to think “what's the big deal,” understand that runaway slaves were branded for such an offense. A class of persons called Fugitivarii made it their business to recover runaway slaves and then brand them on the forehead with the letters “FUG” denoting their insolence. The deliberate breaking of the joints or bones was also a punishment inflicted on runaway slaves. And the master had every right to retaliate.
Paul's request is no trivial matter. He is asking for a master to humble himself for the sake of the slave – a posture unheard of in Ancient Rome. He challenges Philemon's depth of love and shakes the very core of his faith by suggesting that the runaway's crime was for the better. This is the same Paul that himself used to inflict heinous torture on believers. This is the same Paul who was a Roman citizen and benefitted from the class-based society that ignored the poor so the rich grew more gluttonous. Yes, Paul had walked in Philemon's shoes in a fashion. His own eyes were opened and he learned about forgiveness and compassion when God became master of his heart.
But did Philemon pass the test? I don't know. And if we don't know if he learned the lesson, then why is this priceless little letter part of God's Holy Word? Because it is timeless and it is written to you and me that we might adopt such a gracious manner.
You see, Jesus went to the cross and suffered as a slave criminal. Roman law crucified a slave for almost any reason. The slave was first scourged, then stripped of his clothes and nailed to a cross. The nails were inserted just above the wrist, between the two bones of the forearm or driven through the wrist. When nailed to the cross, there was a massive strain put on the joint that often resulted in dislocation of the shoulder and elbow. The slave couldn't breathe when he could no longer force his body up to inhale and he would die of asphyxiation. Crucifixion meant painful and lingering death, taking hours or even days to complete its barbaric results.
We know that Christ willingly died undeservedly as a common criminal. How can we still hold to grudges that His death covered? Did He die for nothing? No! He died that we no longer would be slaves to sin. He died that we would not let hate and retaliation and cruelty master us. He died so that grace may abound toward all – slave and free, Gentile and Greek. When sin reigns in us, it is we who become the slaves after all! And that makes Satan our ruthless master with the arrogance and vengeance to torture us with his lies and assaults and Hell itself.
I thank God, that as my master, He welcomes me back even when I fall. He does not indict or punish just because He has the authority. Instead, He forgives because He is full of mercy! I know that He “will do even more than I ask.” (Phil. 1:21)
My master doesn't hold grudges. Do I?