Summary: Paul reminds Philemon and us that we all are slaves, that is, we all have responsibilities to our masters.
Let’s say that you were a pastor, and you had this situation come up in your church: there was a problem between two of your most solid members, we’ll call them Philip and Oswald. But the problem between Phil and Ozzie isn’t a personality clash. The problem isn’t that Phil’s idea got blasted out of the water during a Church Council meeting by Oswald and now feelings are hurt. The problem is that Philip owns Oswald. Oswald is Philip’s runaway slave, and now both these men are members of your church. How would you handle that situation if you were their pastor?
Sound farfetched? You might be surprised that this exact situation indeed occurred, not between Philip and Oswald, but between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul was the pastor of these two men, and that is the occasion of this letter to Philemon. St. Paul takes this opportunity to remind these two men, and us, that We Are All Slaves.
We don’t know how Onesimus got to be a slave. Sometimes slaves were the result of Roman conquests. Villages and tribes that they defeated became slaves. Sometimes slaves got to be that way because of their debts. They owed someone so much money that the only way to pay it off was to be a slave. Sometime people were slaves because they were born that way. If a slave man and a slave woman had a baby, guess what? That baby was a slave too.
We don’t know how Onesimus became a slave. But I think we can understand his frustration and anger over his lot in life. I mean, what parent would like to hear their child say, “one day, I hope someone owns me. I’d think being a slave would be cool.”
We do know that Onesimus was a pretty lousy slave. Paul admits that in his letter to Philemon. Paul says, “formerly, he was useless to you.” Onesimus was a slave you couldn’t trust with anything; he talked back, was lazy, irresponsible, irritable; he just generally had a bad attitude. On top of all that, he ran away from his duties. Paul hints that as Onesimus was making his getaway, he stole stuff from Philemon, money, or other articles of value that he could sell and sustain himself for a while. Paul said, “if he has done you wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me – I will pay it back.”
Somehow along his journey, Onesimus bumped into Paul. Maybe his money had run out and he thought a Christian like Paul could give him more. We don’t know. But we do know that Onesimus received a lot more than he bargained for. He got riches from Paul – eternal riches. He learned about Jesus Christ, a name he had heard in Philemon’s home, but a name that he never really understood until Paul explained Christ to him. He learned that Jesus had set him free from his sins and had made him an heir – with heaven to look forward to as his inheritance. And this useless slave turned into a useful servant of the Gospel – he faithfully served Paul when he was a prisoner in Rome.
Paul would have loved to keep him, Onesimus was a fellow Christian, a hard worker, and was developing into a dear friend, but Paul knew something wasn’t right. Onesimus had run away from his responsibilities to Philemon, and it was only right to let Philemon have him back. Onesimus was a slave, and owed respect and obedience to his master.