Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say
–Philemon 21 (ESV)
If you need training in becoming a UN diplomat or a corporate negotiator, try feeding a picky toddler. My daughter knows that she has to eat “real food” before she can have something sweet. So it ends up going something like this: “eat your chicken nuggets and some of your apple slices and you can have a cookie.” (a little later) “o.k., eat at least one chicken nugget and one apple slice.” (still later) “just eat a chicken nugget and drink some milk, please, before you starve to death.” She is testing me, of course, trying to find the absolute minimum she has to do to get what she wants. Children do this all the time, testing boundaries to see at what point they start to get in trouble. Then they go right up to the line and turn to you with a mischievous grin. Anyone with a sibling will remember the age-old game of putting a finger inches from your sibling’s face, and when he or she complains, you say “but I’m not touching you”. It seems to be human nature to follow the rules only as far as we have to. We will do what we must, but no more.
Jesus had no time for those who just followed the rules. He tells the following parable in Luke’s gospel:
Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ (17:7-10)
Serving God involves so much more than just fulfilling religious obligations and “doing our duty”. The Pharisees were masters at being religious and had a long list of duties that they fulfilled. But Jesus condemns them (Matthew 23) because they do their deeds for the wrong motives, in order to stoke their vanity and to increase their prestige and position. They lay impossible burdens on the backs of others while doing little themselves. Here, I think, is the key verse: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). Or, to put it another way, you missed the forest for the trees. The Pharisees had become so concerned with the minutiae of following their own religious laws that they had neglected the broader command of God. Their outward holiness masked their inward corruption. This is the danger of just “doing your duty”. I fear that 21st century Christians look more like the Pharisees than Jesus.
In today’s verse, Paul encourages Philemon to go beyond surface obedience. The implication here is that he wants Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom, so that he may return to help Paul in his ministry. This is why I would say that accusing Paul of being an apologist for slavery is missing the point. The letter of the law says that Onesimus should remain a slave, but grace says that he has been set free. “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6b). This is the message of the gospel: that Christ fulfilled and superseded the Law: “for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). He is “the end” of the Law not in the sense of abolishing it, but in the sense of being the reason for its existence. “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). We become right with God not by fulfilling a list of religious obligations, but simply through faith in Jesus Christ, accepting His work on our behalf. So doing the minimum by “being religious” (whatever that means) is not only Pharisaical, it’s pointless. We literally don’t have to do anything to be right with God because the work has been done for us.
So does this mean we have nothing to do, that obedience is a meaningless word now? As Paul would say, certainly not! Remember: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39). And what does it mean to love God? For once Jesus gives us a direct answer: “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). At first this seems like a circular answer, for His command is to love. But that’s kind of the point. If you read on in John 14, you will see that Jesus promises his disciples the Holy Spirit (“the Spirit of truth”) who will reveal the Father to them. Christ’s commands are, of course, the ones found in Scripture, but there is so much more than that. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we have constant access to Jesus. Thus, obedience to Christ flows from our relationship with Christ in prayer, Scripture, worship, and service. Obedience is listening to God’s voice through whatever means He might wish to speak and following through immediately, completely, and joyfully. We ought to listen to those over us in the faith (as Philemon listened to Paul), and be obedient to the Church. We should practice accountability with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Most of all, we must listen our own conscience, trained in Scripture and prayer, and follow the prompting of the Spirit. Obedience to Christ is about so much more than doing the minimum in order to get into heaven, like my toddler doing just enough to get a cookie. No, we follow Christ by cultivating a relationship of love with Him and spreading that love to all those we meet. Let our lives be lived in obedience to the extravagant love and grace of God.