Philemon and Onesimus
Do you remember when the Princess of Wales was killed in that car crash, four years ago? It was very sad, but the media, of course, had a field day writing about her life and her work, and many people felt genuinely that they had had a personal bereavement. One thing that did come out of the sadness and media hype was the way large numbers of people came forward and said how kind the Princess had been to them. It wasn’t just the grand openings of hospitals, or the formal visits with subsequent pictures in the papers – it was letters, it was quick visits after hours, it was personal contact and a genuine sense that she cared.
Well, St Paul seems to have been very much the same sort of person, and one example of his private kindness, just one, appears in our Bibles, and that is the letter to Philemon that we have just heard read.
So who was Philemon, anyway? We don’t know very much about him;
he lived in Colossae, was married to Appia, and had one son called Archippus. He was also a friend of Paul’s, and seems to have had some position of authority in the church at Colossae. Scholars think that the letter to Philemon was written at the same time as the letter to the Colossians and the now-vanished letter to the Laodiceans, and that Tychicus and Onesimus took the whole lot with them.
Actually, some scholars think that the letter to the Laodiceans is what we know as the letter to the Ephesians, but other scholars aren’t absolutely sure that Ephesians was written by Paul. Not that it matters – they do all think that Philemon, and Colossians, come to that, was a genuine letter from Paul.
Anyway, Philemon of Colossae was a rich man, rich enough to own slaves. We are disgusted by the very idea of slavery, but throughout most of human history it seems to have been acceptable. And it still exists in parts of the world today, unfortunately – and there are even some slaves here in London. I wish it weren’t so, but sadly, it is.
However, in Philemon’s day, people thought nothing wrong in owning slaves. I don’t know whether the slaves thought so. If you were Jewish, it was one thing – Jewish law required all slaves to be freed after seven years’ service, and given capital to start up on their own, if they wished. But it was very different to be a slave to a Roman, when you were, purely and simply, property. I have read that it wasn’t quite as desperate as being a slave in the USA before the Civil War, but I don’t think it was much better. Although, unlike in the USA, being a slave didn’t debar you from a good education; quite the reverse, in fact, since most teachers were slaves!
We don’t know, though what Onesimus’ position in the household had been. But he had obviously been very unhappy, unhappy enough that he ran away to Rome, where he could be anonymous. Now, under Jewish law, if a slave was unhappy enough to run away, it was your fault, and nobody was going to make him or her go back to you, but the Romans took a very different view of the matter. Your slaves were your property, and must and should be returned to you – whatever punishment you might see fit to dole out to them when they did return.
So Onesimus’ life would have been that of an outlaw, always fearing discovery, always terrified of being sent back. Of course, we don’t know why he decided to run away. But we do know that Philemon and his family were Christian people – could it be, do you suppose, that after Paul’s visit to Colossae, when Philemon, Appia, Archippus and all the rest of the family had become Christians, Onesimus had held out? Perhaps Philemon had said he must be baptised – in those days, when the head of the household was baptised, often everyone was. Perhaps Onesimus had thought it was all a load of rubbish, and was desperate not to be baptised. Or perhaps he couldn’t handle the way Philemon changed after his conversion. We aren’t told. Judging by the fact that his name means “Useful”, and Paul made puns about it, I expect Onesimus had been born into slavery, and known nothing different. The changes that took place after the family’s conversion to Christianity must have been a shock to his system, whatever. Or, of course, perhaps he had run away before the family were converted. Again, we aren’t told. But we do know that when he ran away, he was not yet a Christian.
Well, he may not have been a Christian, but that doesn’t mean God didn’t love him, didn’t have a hand on him. People would undoubtedly have been praying for Onesimus’ safety, and for his conversion, and God answered those prayers in a wonderful way, by causing Onesimus, once again, to come into contact with Paul. And so, eventually, Onesimus comes to faith.
But coming to faith, although we often call it being born again, doesn’t mean you leave your problems totally behind you. You may be a new creation, but there are remnants of your past life to come and haunt you. There are people you must apologise to, if necessary; you might have committed crimes, even, which have to be put right. Not a few conversions happen in prisons, of course.
I wonder, actually, if Onesimus might not have been in prison when Paul met him; we know that Paul was imprisoned in Rome. But then, Onesimus seems to be free to go off with Tychicus, so perhaps not. Because Onesimus had to go back. However difficult it would be, however awful going back to the slavery he loathed and dreaded, he belongs to Philemon and must go back to him.
But he doesn’t go alone. For a start, now that he is a Christian he knows that Jesus is with him, and that he will be serving the same God as his master. But, more immediately important, Paul sends a letter to Philemon with him. And in that letter, Paul pleads for Onesimus:
“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. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”
“So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”
Paul is desperate for Philemon to be good to Onesimus, and reminds him that they are both Christians now:
“Perhaps this is the reason he 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.”
We aren’t, sadly, told what happened when Onesimus got home. We know he went off to Colossae with Tychicus, and presumably he arrived there, since the letter has survived. I hope Philemon welcomed him with the love due to a brother in Christ. I hope, very much, that Philemon did, as Paul hints he should, free Onesimus, and treat him as an equal.
But the thing was, Onesimus had to go home anyway. Even if Philemon hadn’t been a Christian, even if he had been a cruel master and Onesimus had been facing a certain flogging, and possible execution. Onesimus had to go home. Because, as a Christian, it was his duty to do so. He couldn’t leave unfinished business hanging about. He had to wipe the slate clean. He had to put things right.
That, I think, is one of the things the letter to Philemon tells us. That we do need to put things right. Our dear Lord, you may remember, told us that “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,
and then come and offer your gift.”
Onesimus had to go and be reconciled with Philemon. He had to make the effort even if Philemon treated him as he had every right to do. And we, too, must always be the first to be reconciled. If someone has anything, anything at all, to reproach us with, then we must go and do what we can to put things right. First, before we do anything else. Onesimus did, and so must we.
But the other thing to remember is there were two people involved. Onesimus had to go back to Philemon, but Philemon’s duty was also plain – to forgive Onesimus, to welcome him back to his rightful place as one of the family, and, perhaps, to grant him his freedom. That was probably not easy for him. Although mind you, if Onesimus had been missing for some years, it was probably far easier to welcome him back
than if he’d only been missing a couple of weeks. But you know what it’s like. If someone comes to you and says they are sorry, it’s not always easy to accept their apology and forgive them. And it’s even worse when they don’t apologise, or do so in such a way that it’s quite clear they don’t really mean it. Our instinct is to go on being livid, and not to forgive them.
But Jesus reminds us, on several occasions, that we must forgive if we are, ourselves, to receive forgiveness: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
The letter to Philemon is, of all the letters in the Bible, the one that has the most to teach us about forgiveness. Onesimus had to come back to put things right with his master, and Philemon had to forgive Onesimus and help him make a fresh start. And we, too, need to put things right with one another, and with God. All of us do. So if you know that someone has something against you, as the Scripture says, do go and put things right with them as soon as you leave here, won’t you? Or if someone has offended you, do forgive them. It isn’t easy, but we must do it, if we bear the name of Christ.