Who Is Your ‘Onesimus’?
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. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
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 the invisible people in our lives are.
Now, how many reading this note has written postal letters? As some of my cousins were far away in Kerala and when there were no emails, facebook, Whatsapp, to be in touch and when phone calls were strictly to be spoken for 3 minutes maximum, Inland letters were the only way to be in touch. My cousin Rev Mathews George was the best at writing letters and I was very lousy at replying it. During my seminary days, I used to wait eagerly for the letter of my mother who used to give all the details of our home and used to assure her prayers for my seminary studies. The personal touch of a postal letter cannot be recaptured. Of all the letters Paul has written, letter of Philemon is the most personal one in my reckoning. 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 very 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. Prison seems to be the contact point of Paul and Onesimus. 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 here that 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.
The meaning of Onesimus is useful. But Philemon considered him useless. The idea of seeing people in the binary or category of useful and useless itself is demeaning. Onesimus has incurred heavy loss to Philemon and Onesimus sure was in no position to repay him. This part of the letter is the climax and the zenith in verses 18 and 19 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” Boooom. Did you hear that? This letter is just not about platitudes. Just not free advice. Paul is ready to vouch for Onesimus by saying all the debts Onesimus has incurred, Charge that to my account. Paul is saying, I stand for him, I take the guarantee. Charge that to my account. It sounds like a blackmail or arm-twisting tactic. But he is doing it for a brother he found in prison and who is no more a slave but a son of Christ. When we keep saying Jesus died for the debts of my sin, it is just platitudes as we do not understand the magnitude of the cost. Paul knows it and brings into action by being ready to pay a debt for someone who can never pay the debt. I do not know about you, I am deeply moved by the passion with which Paul ends the letter. If I may say, I see his eyes pop out when he is writing it with intensity. What a wonderful letter
There is a ragged lady who kept coming to our Church in Bhopal. After the service, I kept ignoring her and behaved as if she does not exist. But she kept persisting. I used to give her token amounts of Rs 5 and 10 just to shoo her off. But still she kept coming. One day I told her “Amma, baar baar math aaya karo.” She went away with a sad countenance. But she came again. The day she came, I was reading a book my Paul Miller who said, if we look at people how Jesus saw them, we would enter into their lives and stories. I thought of giving it a try. I called the lady that I kept calling ‘Bai’. I asked her what is her story. Her husband was an alcoholic and used to abuse her and he died in a road accident long back. She had a wonderful son who looked after her very well. She conducted his marriage with whatever resources she had. He had two adorable daughters. Life was very peaceful. Son used to work in a construction site and died in a freak accident. Her life came crashing down. Within a year the wife of her son ran away with another man, leaving the daughters with “Bai”. Her name is Geetha. She said “Beta, I do not want anything. These two granddaughters are the reason why I am alive. Their need to go to school is what keeps me working and also asking for help.” I felt overwhelmingly guilty at how I treated her. With the story of her life she was no more a nuisance but a human being with great resolve. And whenever we offer her money now for the education of her granddaughters, she showers us with a lot of blessings that we earnestly need. One day she came saying “Tomorrow is Makarsankranti, and I have to make Laddoos of Til for my bacchas.” I smiled at her and said, I will give but when you make, we also want some Laddoos for us.” I meant it as a joke. But she came next day with 6 laddoos. Soji and I were competing to hog it as the taste was awesome. Now she wants us to come to her juggi (hut) so that we can have lunch with her and her granddaughters. All she really asks is “Please pray for Priya and Swathi”