For your entertainment, I am posting my award winning inspirational short story.
Awarded 6th place in the inspirational division of the
Writer’s Digest 2007 Short Story Contest
by Reynold J. Conger
© 2007 by Reynold J. Conger.
Philemon knelt in his chambers and wept as he prayed, “Oh, Lord. Save my son. Open his eyes to your grace and your love.”
Drafus had politely told his father that he would rather not attend the meal that night, but the polite words did not hide the youth’s contempt. Supper that night would be rather simple compared to the meals usually served at Philemon’s table. It would be served to both rich and poor. There would be those, like Philemon, who would eat the simple food as a way of reminding themselves not to be come too worldly, and there would be those for whom the simple meal would taste rich because the abundance of food would fill stomachs that frequently went hungry. Then there would be those who were nourished more by the fellowship with Christian friends than by the food.
Once a month, Philemon, or one of the other more prosperous members of the church at Colosse, would host a “love feast”. All would be welcome, even outsiders. No distinction would be made between rich or poor except, perhaps, when Philemon would whisper to a servant to refill the bowls of guests who he knew were poorly nourished. All would have as much or as little food as they desire. All would join in conversation and fellowship. The meal would be followed by a short session of prayer and hymns. Usually one of the older men, or a visitor, would say a few words about Jesus.
Unfortunately Philemon had pressed his son until Drafus lost his temper. “Father, you may rub elbows with this low class riffraff if you wish, but I would rather dine on fine food with my friends and seek a little sport afterward.”
Philemon responded, “Drafus, these are your fellow citizens with whom you will have to live. These are some of your future customers. Learn to love them. Some day, when you take over the business, your livelihood will depend on people like these. Besides, there is a special guest tonight, Brother Apollos.”
Drafus spat on the ground. “Apollos only seeks to live off of your largess by impressing you with stories of this god. Who would believe in a god who became a man, died voluntarily and then rose from the dead? Why believe in any god? Gods are little more than idle tales told by old men. Gods can not bring us pleasure.”
Philemon held back his anger, and Drafus made preparations for an evening’s reverie. Then Philemon retreated to his room to cry and pray. He had hoped the great preacher, Apollos, might stir his son’s soul. “Lord, you, only you can reach my son.” A flood of tears interrupted his prayers.
A few minutes later, the steward of the house cleared his throat respectfully to catch his master’s attention.
“Yes,” said Philemon looking up.
“Sir, I have two things to report. The first is that all preparations have been made for the feast tonight including a room for Brother Apollos to sleep in.”
“Excellent. He has walked a long way today and will be exhausted by the time he finishes preaching. Has he arrived yet?”
“I am told he is resting at Janis’s house. He should arrive with Janis. The second thing to report is disturbing rumors.”
“Disturbing? In what ways?”
“The rumors are that half a dozen of the slaves intend to use the feast tonight as a cover for departure.”
“Yes, departure as in escape. They seem to think that they can sign on as seamen if they get to the coast.”
Philemon frowned. Two years previously, Onesimus, Philemon’s favorite slave, had run away. A highly skilled artisan, Onesimus had been both profitable and a close personal friend to his master. Philemon, then newly converted to Christianity, had been considering freeing this slave, but before Philemon could do so, Onesimus had departed without permission. Philemon’s losses had been both financial and emotional. Bitterness toward Onesimus burned in Philemon’s heart. Philemon groaned, “The fools. Why do they do it?”
“Yes, the fools,” agreed the steward. “Unlike Onesimus, those plotting escape have few skills to sell. They are unlikely to find someone to hide them. They will starve or worse.”
“Certainly they will meet with calamity. We were able to follow a trail of people who hired Onesimus for one thing or another. They hid him while he worked for them. A man who can not sell his skills will have neither money or hope.”
“Yes, sir, we tracked Onesimus a long way, but the trail eventually turned cold. Those who profited from him, hid him.”
Philemon paced back and forth in thought. Then he said, “Be at ease. You did all you could to recover Onesimus. You once said, you thought he might have been killed by robbers.”
“A possibility, sir. There are enough bandits in the hills.”
“Sometimes I wish I could be sure he met his fate at the hands of robbers or wild animals. That would be a fitting punishment for the pain he caused me. The ingrate. The fool. On the other hand. . . . Well, he’s gone, probably for good, but you can be sure if he is ever returned, he will be whipped soundly.”
With a bow, the steward said, “Give the word, and it shall be done, but first someone will have to catch him. I also need to inform you that I have hired extra men to guard outside the gate tonight.”
Philemon said, “Well done, but we can do better. Gather the household and tell them the consequences an escaped slave will receive.”
“Very well. I shall announce to the household that Roman law provides for the execution of escaped slaves.”
“Of course not. The Romans may think they hold the power of life and death over the entire world. They do not realize that it is God alone who has the right to determine when it is time for a person to die. Furthermore there is the matter of economics. A returned slave, no matter how rebellious, is of greater value than the body of a dead slave.”
“Then what should I tell them?”
Philemon said forcefully, “Tell them this, ‘Any slave, man or maid, who attempts escape shall be whipped publicly in the courtyard.’ As much as I love them, they are still my property. I shall not lose any more of them. A little fear may remind them to remain loyal.”
As the steward departed, the master returned to praying desperately for his son’s soul. Presently a commotion in the courtyard interrupted Philemon’s meditation. Irritated, he strode into the courtyard. There a gatekeeper held Onesimus. Philemon gasped, “Who brought him back? There shall be a hansom reward.”
The gatekeeper said, “No one brought him. He walked up to the gate and called for entry like he was the emperor himself.”
“By your leave,” pleaded Onesimus.
At a nod from Philemon, the gatekeeper released Onesimus who fell at Philemon’s feet saying, “I return to you, my rightful master. I confess that I sinned against you when I ran away. I have brought shame and loss to you, and I have displeased God. You have the right to kill me or meet out any other punishment you desire. I ask only that you forgive me for my bold and sinful actions. Please forgive me. Then give me the punishment I deserve.” After a pause, he pulled a parchment from his cloak and extended it adding, “I also bring a letter to you from Paul, the apostle from Tarsus. When I left Rome, he was alive and well, though still under house arrest. He asked me to bring this to you.”
“Paul of Tarsus? It is good to hear well of him. I have feared for his safety.”
“He lives in a rented house. Of course he is chained to a guard day and night, but they open his door to visitors. That is how I had the opportunity to talk with him and is why I bear his letter to you.”
Philemon clenched his fists for a moment. “You have hurt me badly, but you are forgiven. I hope this forgiveness will take away the sting of the whip. I forgive you only because Jesus commands us to forgive those who hurt us. Forgiveness does not mitigate your punishment.” He glared at the escaped slave. Then he sat on a nearby bench. “Do you know what this says?”
Onesimus shook his head. “Paul said it is a personal letter to you.”
Philemon said, “Tie Onesimus to a pillar of the porch and assemble the entire household.”
The steward protested, “But you forgave him.”
“He is forgiven, but he has sinned against me and against God. Justice must be served,” Philemon broke the seal on the letter and read it silently twice.
Within minutes, the entire household, slaves, family members and guests alike, gathered in the courtyard.
Philemon paced in front of the gathering. He stopped to glance again at the letter. Then he said in a loud and terrible voice, “My decree was given that any slave seeking to leave this household unlawfully shall be whipped publicly. Onesimus, having run away, deserves eight lashes across the bare back.”
Philemon’s youngest daughter, who thought the world of Onesimus, cried out in anguish.
Philemon glared at his daughter while the momentary commotion quieted. Then he said, “Because he returned voluntarily, the punishment is reduced to four lashes.”
Philemon whispered to the man who held the whip. The man replied, “No Sir, I can not.”
“Yes, you shall. If you do not, I shall whip you personally and more severely than Onesimus deserves.”
Philemon could see Onesimus close his eyes and tense his muscles in anticipation of the first lash. The master slipped his robe from his shoulders and handed it to a servant. Then he stepped forward and, grasping the other pillar, said, “Let justice be served. Strike once.”
“Father, no!” said Drafus as the whip fell on his father’s back.
Philemon gasped in pain. “Justice must be served. Strike again thrice more.”
Three more times the whip fell on Philemon’s back. Three more times the old man cried out in pain.
At Philemon’s word, a servant cut Onesimus loose. Immediately Onesimus ran to Philemon and said, “Master, I do not deserve such grace. Let me help you to your bed. Let me tend personally to your stripes.”
Gathering Onesimus into an embrace, Philemon said, “Brother Paul writes that you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior.”
“Welcome to the family of God, Brother Onesimus, and welcome home to this household. You are forgiven, totally forgiven. Brother Paul reminds me that forgiveness is more than words. My actions must verify the forgiveness.”
“But your back, Master,” protested Onesimus.
“Yes, you had better tend to my sores, and while you do, we can talk,” said Philemon as he walked to his chambers leaning heavily on the shoulders of Onesimus and another slave.
Drafus turned to the steward and said, “I will not be going out after all. Please set a place for me at the feast tonight. Place me at the feet of Apollos where I may learn from him about this matter of grace and about this god, Jesus, whom my father serves.”