Earlier this week, Melody and I were visiting some friends south of Houston. This couple has two adorable children, Ellie and Ethan. Melody, of course, took an immediate liking to both of them. At one point during our first day there, Melody was holding Ethan and wanted to run upstairs and grab something before we were to go and run some errands. She looked at me and said, "I need to run upstairs and grab something." To which I responded, "Okay." Clearly frustrated by my obvious oblivion, she said, "Fine, I'll just carry Ethan up the stairs with me while I go and get what I need." "But I didn't know you wanted me to hold Ethan!" I protested. "You never asked me to hold him!"
I'm not very good at recognizing non-verbal cues. "Reading between the lines" and "taking hints" are most definitely not my spiritual gifts, often to the frustration of my wife, who expects me to be able to read her glances, gestures, and tone of voice. Although I've gotten slightly better, I admittedly still have a long way to go.
Our reading for today from Philemon is an appeal from the apostle Paul to a slave owner of the same name. Apparently, one of Philemon's slaves, Onesimus, had run away and, by what appears to be an act of divine providence, had met Paul and become a partner with him in ministry. In this short letter, Paul appeals to Philemon for leniency toward Onesimus, since the crime of running away while enslaved carried with it brutal punishments. Walter Elwell and Robert Yarbrough write about these punishments: "[Running away] was a serious crime, which resulted in stern punishment if the offender was caught. Burning, branding, maiming, or even death was possible." (Encountering the New Testament, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005], p. 321).
Even though Paul's initial appeal for leniency is quite clear, in order to fully understand Paul's letter to Philemon and discern his true intentions, we must "read between the lines," as it were, and "take hints." Paul opens his appeal:
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul - an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus - I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. (verses 8-10)
Paul, in his opening statements, refuses to baldly order Philemon with regard to Onesimus. But he certainly drops plenty of hints. He writes, "Perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good - no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother." (verses 15-16). Paul tells Philemon that he should recognize Onesimus not just as his slave, but as his brother in Christ. Paul then continues, expressing his confidence that Philemon will go beyond just recognizing him as a brother to treating him as a brother: "Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask" (verse 21). What is Paul here implying? It seems to be emancipation. Paul seems to be arguing that freedom in Christ should be a catalyst toward freedom from slavery. And just in case Philemon may be reticent to accept Paul's subtle urging, Paul adds one final word: "And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers" (verse 22). In other words, Paul is telling Philemon, "I'll be by to check up on my friend Onesimus. So, I hope you've 'read between the lines' and have 'taken a hint' from my letter. I hope you've freed Onesimus."
Sometimes, being a Christian can involve a fair amount of "reading between the lines" and "taking hints." For we are called to notice pains, hurts, wounds, and worries that often the rest of the world overlooks in its crush of hurried self-absorption. If someone says they're doing "just fine," but you can tell merely by the tone of their voice that their heart is heavy, do you pry a little deeper? If someone seems to need your assistance, even when you're running a tight schedule, do you pause to offer a helping hand? Do you "read between the lines" and "take hints" to try to distinguish between what people say and what they actually mean... and what they really need? My prayer for you today is that, even if with just one person, you press beyond your normal, everyday surface conversations and "read between the lines" and "take a hint" and discover someone's deeper needs. For this is the place where God's love can ease troubled a heart and sooth a worried a soul.