I love the story of Onesimus. He is mentioned in the Letter to the Colossians as one of their number, so he and his (former?) master Philemon must have lived in Colossae. (Colossae was in what we know as western Turkey.)
Onesimus was a slave. His very name tells us that. Onesimus means ‘useful’. That was his name, Useful. Not much of a name, is it? Onesimus was a ‘slave name’—it was a name only a slave would have been given. It was also his identity—he was fed and housed because he was useful. Woe betide him if he ever became useless.
Well, in fact that’s just what did happen. He became useless to his master. It seems that he left Philemon, ran into the Apostle Paul in jail, and became a believer. Listen again to what Paul says, and listen for the play on words:
I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was ‘useless’ to you, but now he is indeed ‘useful’ both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.
Onesimus has become a Christian, and Paul is his spiritual father.
But things are complicated.
As a slave, Onesimus is the property of Philemon. Paul and Philemon have been ‘partners’ in Christian work, so Paul feels he can’t just keep Onesimus by his side. While Paul has the authority to insist that Philemon receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ, he has chosen to negotiate with Philemon.
Philemon is a Christian leader in Colossae. A congregation meets at his villa. How can a Christian leader ‘own’ slaves? How can Philemon own another human being as property? How does that go with being a Christian?
We must be careful in judging people in other times and places by our own moral standards. Slavery is abhorrent to us, yet slavery was abolished relatively recently in history. In fact, slavery was abolished in the British Empire on 28 August 1833, only 180 years ago. And while slavery is illegal, slaves still exist today. Often, they are women or children in the sex trade. Sometimes, they make the clothes we wear. We should be aware that slavery is nowhere near dead, but it is swept under the rug. One thing is certain—just as we may be shocked that Philemon could own slaves, so people in future times will be absolutely appalled at some of the things we accept or tolerate today.
It is complicated. But wait, there’s more! There’s an even bigger complication, if that’s possible! Listen again to what Paul writes in verses 15 and 16:
Perhaps this is the reason he [Onesimus] was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
“A beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Onesimus was Philemon’s slave; how could he also be his ‘brother in the flesh’?
The most convincing answer to that question is really quite distressing to me. It is this: a slave was the slaveowner’s property, and had to do whatever the owner wanted. That included a slave submitting to the owner’s sexual demands. If the master wanted sex, the slave had no choice but to submit. It is likely that Onesimus was Philemon’s brother in the flesh because while his mother was a slave, Philemon’s father was also his father. In other words, Philemon and Onesimus were most probably half-brothers.
If that is true, they had a complicated relationship. They were master and slave, and shared the same father. One was a person, a citizen; one was property. But now they were brothers in Christ, and Paul wanted Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul.
Paul wants Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, a fellow Christian, and a human being. No longer could Onesimus be merely ‘useful’ property.
Did Philemon receive Onesimus back as Paul wanted? We don’t know. Let’s assume he did; I think it makes more sense that this letter being kept and copied through the generations if he did.
It is also intriguing to note that a few years down the track, the Bishop of Ephesus was named Onesimus. Was this our Onesimus, who may have been in his seventies by that time? Maybe, but we can’t say for sure. If it was the same man, we may assume that it was he who kept the parchments containing the letters to Philemon and the Colossians safe for the future. For us.
Let’s leave Onesimus and Philemon for a short while. Let’s change our focus to look at Jeremiah and the potter’s house. The word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah:
Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.
This is what Jeremiah sees there:
The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
The potter has charge over the clay, to make it as whatever he sees fit. And he can start again. Jeremiah links that to the nation of Judah, which God can replace if necessary. They need to change their ways so that they may be refashioned into the nation God calls them to be.
I’d like to ask a very basic question: what would cause a potter to start again with a piece of clay?
It seems to me that a potter would look for two things, usefulness and beauty. If the clay is looking like it won’t be useful; if it looks like the finished product won’t be pleasing to the eye, the potter might start again. The two criteria are usefulness and beauty.
Back to Onesimus, whose very name means ‘useful’!
God has done a new work in Onesimus, God has ‘reworked’ him, the great Potter has fashioned a new thing. God sees beauty in Onesimus. The Apostle Paul sees beauty in Onesimus. And Philemon is being invited to see beauty in his slave, his half-brother, his brother in the Lord. In fact, God wants to ‘rework’ Philemon too.
I doubt that Philemon would ever have thought of Onesimus as beautiful. He was a slave, a thing, his only value was in his name: ‘Useful’. Onesimus was a possession. It looks like Philemon may well need to hear the confronting words of Jesus:
…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Philemon needs much more ‘reworking’ than Onesimus. So may we, with our possessions; what are we willing to give up for the sake of Jesus? What would we willingly give up to be both beautiful and useful for God?
We may not have slaves, but we can still value others by how useful they are to us. Or we can feel devalued because others value us only for what we can do for them. God invites us to something better and greater; God invites us to see something of beauty in others. Some of us may need to see something of beauty in ourselves. Whoever we are, we are works of art in the divine Potter’s hands, who sees the beauty in us and desires us to cooperate with God’s work on earth.
In the end, Onesimus was made to be beautiful as well as useful. Perhaps Philemon needed to be made useful as well as beautiful.
In God’s eyes, you are beautiful as well as useful. And so is everyone else.