Have you ever had to ask someone for a big favor? It’s hard, isn’t it? You have to screw up your courage and be ready for a big “no” to your request. I don’t know about you, but when I find myself in that place, I rehearse my request over and over in my mind. I try to have an articulated proposal ready, and I always appeal to the person’s good and kind nature first.
The strange little book of Philemon in the New Testament records a time when Paul asked his friend Philemon for a big, big favor. This favor would not only benefit Paul but also Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus. In a set of circumstances that only God could arrange, Onesimus fled from Philemon and ran to Rome, where he met Paul. Paul converted him, just as he did Philemon years earlier.
Paul wrote this letter from jail and used that situation to appeal to Philemon’s better nature:
Philemon 1 (The Message)
8-9 In line with all this I have a favor to ask of you. As Christ’s ambassador and now a prisoner for him, I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary, but I’d rather make it a personal request.
The word “ambassador” is also translated “old man.” In Hebrew, these two phrases are one letter apart. So, by putting himself in the light of an old man in jail, he hoped to butter Philemon up. Notice also that he stated that he could command Philemon to do his bidding but decided to make it a personal request. In other words, he based his appeal on their mutual love for one another.
What a marvelous concept. Where would we be if we appealed to people’s better nature and then asked for favors based on love, rather than demand?
Paul went on to set the stage for the big ask:
10-14 While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to.
Paul cleverly suggested that since Onesimus was helping Paul with his ministry, the runaway slave was useful to both of them because he was working for the gospel, something that Philemon himself supported.
What came next is groundbreaking. Paul suggested that a man who had been a slave should be considered a brother because of their shared faith in Christ. This was a common theme for Paul. You may remember that he took down all the barriers between people who are gathered in the faith community of Christ followers:
Galatians 3:28. (Common English Bible)
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Equity would balance out these scales and perhaps persuade Philemon to allow Onesimus to be emancipated. Surely a man cannot deny a brother in Christ the freedom that he enjoys.
15-16 Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while. You’re getting him back now for good—and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That’s what he was to me—he’ll be even more than that to you.
Finally, Paul laid down the big favor. Would you welcome him back as you would me? The law permitted slave owners to kill runaway slaves, or at least enslave them again upon their return. Paul asked that Philemon welcome Onesimus “as you would me,” meaning as you would a brother and friend in Christ.
17-20 So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good.
Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians next, and in the fourth chapter we learn what happened:
Colossians 4 (Common English Bible)
9 I sent him with Onesimus, our faithful and dearly loved brother, who is one of you. They will let you know about everything here.
Onesimus went on Paul’s behalf with Tychicus to Colossae, indicating that he did indeed receive his emancipation from Philemon as Paul had asked.
This a great reminder of what our grandmothers told us when they said that we catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Do you need to persuade someone to do you a favor? Are you arguing with someone to the point where neither of you is listening to each other anymore? Do you yell at your spouse and kids to do things rather than appeal to their better nature and make the request based on mutual love?
Take a page from Paul’s book next time you find yourself needing a favor. Use the honey.