What can a story from a time when slavery was legal teach us about freedom? Well, perhaps we should read the letter to Philemon!
A slave escaped from his owner, possibly stealing in the process, and headed for the bright lights, and anonymity, of the big city. There, somehow, he met a Christian – Paul. And during, and despite, Paul’s imprisonment, the slave became a Christian, and one Paul valued for his help. There’s a pun (you’d expect me to pick it up!). The slave’s name was Onesimus – ”useful”.
That’s wonderful! We can always celebrate when someone finds faith and new life. But Paul can’t and won’t keep someone else’s slave, even if he belongs to an old friend. So Onesimus must go back, knowing that his master could have him executed for escaping, wondering if he will pause long enough to read this letter before losing his temper.
Paul’s letter really works hard, explaining how the useless runaway has become very useful; offering to repay anything that was taken (but hinting heavily that Philemon really owes Paul everything); making it very clear that he would like Onesimus sent back to help Paul in his work, but saying that he can’t tell Philemon what to do (though his voluntary action would be a credit to him …).
No doubt the first readers knew what happened next – and we don’t. As time went on, the letter might have been lost as irrelevant, dealing only with people long dead. I wonder if it was kept and valued for what is said of Christian freedom? It would be many years before Christians would lead the fight against legalised slavery – a proper and important fight, but not the most important.
Paul is telling us that Onesimus found his freedom with his faith. He would remind us elsewhere that life could be lived (for everybody) as slaves of sin or slaves of righteousness – but that it had to be one or the other, there was no “independence”. We need to hear that. We’ve gone to the opposite extreme, thinking we owe nothing to anybody – which is not true!
But also many Christians today will say “If things were different, I could do more about my faith” –
- if I was free
- if I didn’t have such a demanding job
- if my family responsibilities were less
- if I had better health, was younger, more talented …
We need to understand that faith makes us free to do what is right: to be a Christian at work, or at home,
or, as a Christian, to change our priorities, lifestyle, and use of time.
Yes, Paul will advise slaves who have the chance, to obtain their freedom, but as something less important than their eternal freedom from the power of evil. Onesimus, travelling back to his master, is already free – so much so that we are not told if he was ever formally relieved of his slave status.