Vicar’s Reflection: Useful to God: Ordinary Sunday 23, 8 September 2019.
Slavery, in New Testament times was regarded as a normal, essential institution of society, just as employment is today. The Epistle to Philemon is the shortest ‘book’ in the Bible which in a few brief words tells the story of how the Christian faith sowed the seeds of change in this institution. The letter records that Saint Paul, while in prison encountered a runaway slave, Onesimus, who had belonged to Paul’s Christian friend Philemon. Onesimus not only ran away but stole from Philemon, making him liable to severe punishment, even death on his return. Through Paul’s ministry Onesimus became a Christian. Paul persuaded Onesimus to return to his master with this letter containing Paul’s appeal to Philemon based on the love for Christ which the three held in common. Given that the letter was included in the canon of the Bible we can guess that Paul’s appeal was well received and Onesimus was welcomed back into the household of Philemon. The letter is full of gentle humour, e.g. in Greek the name Onesimus means “useful” and was a common name for a slave, and Paul makes a pun on Onesimus’s name in verse 11; and also on Philemon’s name which means “beloved” in vv5 & 7. With gentle good humour, kindness and generosity slave and master were reconciled as brothers in Christ. Slavery persisted for several centuries and was revived in colonial times, but we can see in this snapshot how the seeds of equality in Christ lead to the destruction of slavery.