Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables opens with the struggles of Jean Valjean, a man ostracized by society because he was an ex-convict. Myriel, the town’s bishop, gave him shelter one night, but Valjean fled with Myriel’s silverware. When Valjean was caught by the police, however, the bishop said that he had given the silverware to Valjean. He then gave Valjean two silver candlesticks, as if he had meant to give them as well. After the police set Valjean free, Myriel told him that he should use money from selling the candlesticks to make an honest man of himself.

Onesimus was a fugitive slave who is believed to have stolen from his master (Philemon 1:16-19). He met Paul in prison and had become a believer in Jesus. With his life turned around, he had served well as Paul’s personal aide (Philemon 1:10-13). But Paul sent Onesimus back to be reconciled with his master, Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church.

The apostle asked Philemon to forgive and receive Onesimus back—not as a slave but as a fellow believer in Jesus (Philemon 1:15-16). Paul could have invoked his authority as an apostle and demanded Philemon’s compliance (Philemon 1:8,14), but he didn’t. Instead, Paul humbly and respectfully “[appealed] to [him] on the basis of love” (Philemon 1: NIV). The apostle sought willing and loving cooperation, not grudging acquiescence (Philemon 1:14). It was an appeal of fatherly love and brotherly affection for the reconciliation of two estranged siblings (Philemon 1:12,16).

In a world where “rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them” (Mark 10:42), Paul’s appeal of love is countercultural. May we also be different, learning to “love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude” by God’s power (1 Peter 3:8).

NLT 365-day reading plan passage for today: Matthew 2:13-23