Text- Philemon: 8-16.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 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. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Paul’s Letter to Philemon is a classic letter to a Christian who had a runaway slave. Philemon seems to be a very devout Christian, with lavish praises from Paul. But then the shift in the letter is vey disturbing and intriguing. It seems Philemon had a slave who ran away from him. Running away from a master was a crime worthy of imprisonment. Paul himself was imprisoned for reasons not mentioned here. This seems the contact point of Paul and Onesimus was the prison. We can assume that this slave had brought Philemon huge loss in his act of running away. This is where the appeal of Paul to accept Onesimus as a brother and not a slave becomes very important.
Let us analyse Philemon. He was a very zealous Christian but his slave was beyond the ambit of the Gospel or communion. He needed a Paul to remind him about the dignity of a slave. It was not in the stratification but the communion of Jesus that makes us all brothers and sisters in fellowship. Philemon thought that the gospel was only for people in the church and the slave at home was away from it. Probably he even did not recognize the personhood of Onesimus. It is at this point where Paul reminds that Onesimus is a human worthy of being called a brother. We too are like Philemon. We need a Paul to remind us about the dignity of people around us. Let us look around and ask ourselves what are our attitudes towards our servants at home, peons at our work places, the auto rickshaw drivers, coolies et al, and we will find that our attitudes are abysmal, marred with suspicion and prejudice. It may have basis too. But Paul reminds us we have to rise above these prejudices and accept people and respect them as our brothers and sisters. We may answer that we do not mistreat them. That is true, we hardly ill-treat any of them. But the problem lies somewhere else. The problem is that these people have become invisible for us. We behave as if they do not exist. Ignoring the existence of the personhood of people is a sin comparable to no other.
Let me quote a story illustrated by Stephen Covey in his book “Eighth Habit” which I have adapted to my convenience. “ In a school a teacher declared to the Class 8 that the next day he would conduct a written quiz. The quiz would have a question paper with 20 questions. The students were all excited and surveyed encyclopedia, google, Wikipedia, etc. to do their best in the quiz. The day came. The teacher distributed the question papers. Their pen were in a ready, get, set, go… mode. The questions were tough but their preparations were great. Till the 19th question the sailing was smooth. But the 20th question was a stumbling block. Nobody knew the answer. One of the students stood up and asked “What kind of a question is this? Name the woman who helps in cleaning the premises of your school? Is that a question worthy of a quiz?” The teacher patiently replied. “Son, you know the name of the president of Belaruz. The name of the Fifa Player of the year comes to you as easy as breath, but the lady who has been cleaning the school premises seems invisible to you. When she walks around you don’t even acknowledge her. It’s a danger when we recognize and acknowledge people only on basis of labels and merits. We need to respect people as humans. Even if you have answered 19 questions, if u can’t answer the 20th one, my students you have failed the quiz of being good humans.”
Let us ask who are the invisible people in our lives. Let us not wait for a Paul to write a letter to us to correct our perceptions. Let us recognize the Onesimus in our lives and reconcile with him or her. We are the people who love the idea of having mission fields in far off places taken care by somebody. But we need to recognize that mission fields are our daily living zones where we are to be witnesses of the love of God to all the people we come across. Let us not ask the question “who is my neighbor?” like the lawyer asked Jesus. (Luke 10:29). Who is your Onesimus?
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church