The Story of Onesimus

16 November 2006: Thursday of the 32nd Week in Ordinary Time
Paul’s letter to Philemon

The letter of Paul to Philemon is unique, because it is the only personal letter of Paul which we possess. Paul may have written a lot of personal letters, but this is the only one we’ve got. The letter is addressed to his friend Philemon who owns a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus found his way to Paul in Rome and was baptized a Christian.

The ancient world was a society that accepts slavery. A slave was not a person but a tool. They were at the mercy of their masters who can do anything to them. For a little offense such as dropping a glass of water, the slave can be branded with a hot iron, put into chains and hard labor. The Roman Empire had numerous slaves. Aristotle even said that it is but natural that some men become slaves to serve the higher classes of men. So, Paul writes to Philemon to accept Onesimus as “one like us” — to receive him “as a brother receives another brother.” By doing so, Paul actually risks his life. He was protecting a fugitive, a criminal. But he appealed to Philemon, and his appeal was an appeal of love; an appeal not to his pagan origins, but to his new Christian life.

The ancient world like distinctions: the Greeks classified people into two — the Greeks and the rest are barbarians. What Christianity did in ancient society was to introduce a new relationship between people, in which all range of status was abolished. Christians became one body in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, slaves or free (1 Corinthians 12, 13). In Christ, there was no distinction. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3,11), he said, they were no longer Scythians, barbarians, uncircumcised, circumcised, slaves or free. All were brothers and sisters. No one was master and slave. With this in mind, Paul appealed to the heart of Philemon.

We can imagine how difficult it was for Philemon to accept Onesimus. It would require of him, a great love for Christ. Perhaps a test to his new faith. By running away, Onesimus had insulted Philemon, his master. And Philemon would have all the rights to kill him, flog him, and put him in chains. But Paul made a pun of Onesimus’ name, “once he was useless to you, now, he is profitable to me and to you.” In Greek, Onesimus means profitable. And he was Onesimus by name, Onesimus by nature. He said that just as Onesimus had been profitable to Paul in spreading the Gospel and accompanying him in prison, he would also be useful to Philemon. Paul said in verses 13 & 14: “I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.” And with these words of Paul, Philemon may have returned Onesimus back to him with his blessing.

Let me give you a happy ending. Fifty years later, St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the great Christian martyrs, was taken to be executed in Rome. As he went, he wrote letters which still survives until today. He wrote letters to the churches in Asia Minor. He stopped at a place called Smyrna and wrote to the Church in Ephesus. And in the first chapter of his letter, he addressed the bishop of Ephesus. And the bishop’s name was Onesimus. Ignatius wrote to him, the way Paul wrote: making a pun out of the bishop’s name: Onesimus by name, Onesimus by nature.

It is now an accepted explanation, why among all Paul’s personal letters, it is this letter to Philemon that survives. In the early church, when they were collecting Paul’s letters at the turn of the century, they collected first at Ephesus, where Onesimus was bishop. With that letter, Onesimus witnessed and tells the whole world that he was once a runaway slave and that he owed his life to Paul and to Jesus Christ.

I got a text message today with a question: If all of us will be saved in any religion, why should we be a Catholic Christian? I would perhaps tell him Onesimus’ story. And tell him, all other stories of this magnitude. A witness story is more convincing.

Today, at mass, let us ask ourselves this question: What has Christ done to my life?

Published by Jboy Gonzales SJ

TV/Digital host: Kape't Pandasal. Vlog: YT On the Line. Environment, Youth Formation. Music. Leadership. Always dancing to a different drum.

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