“…I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (Philemon 1:10-11)
When I was studying for pastoral ministry, the Scripture we used in the course on Biblical Interpretation was Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. I have been a fan of this small book, one of the shortest in the New Testament, ever since.
Philemon was, as far we know, a prosperous Christian in the city of Colossae. He was also a slave owner. One of his slaves, a man named Onesimus, had run away and found his way to Paul who was under house arrest in Rome because of his testimony for Christ. We don’t know any of the circumstances that led to his decision to escape; however, under the rules of slave ownership in the Roman Empire during the 1st century, Philemon had absolute authority over his slaves. Had Onesimus been caught or had he returned voluntarily, Philemon had the authority to do anything he wanted to punish Onesimus, including having him executed.
Onesimus was a believer as well, or at least he became one. We don’t know the timing of his conversion, although the one clue we have is that it happened following his escape from the household of Philemon, likely under the discipleship of Paul. We also know that he was of great help to Paul during his time of imprisonment, as Paul says this to Philemon in his letter. Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon, and exhorted Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ and a co-laborer in the gospel. Paul went so far as to ask Philemon to charge to him any debt Onesimus might have owed. Because of the risk to Onesimus in returning, Paul was explicit about his authority as an Apostle (and therefore his status as a spiritual superior over Philemon) as a way of protecting Onesimus from potential harm.
That is all background to highlight an interesting literary characteristic in this letter, the use of word play. Onesimus is a Greek word that means useful or profitable. This was, it seems, not the character he displayed in his former time under Philemon’s ownership, but under the influence of Paul and perhaps others, Onesimus had grown into his name. He had become a faithful and useful servant of GOD; and Paul wanted Philemon to receive him as such. By all indications, this is exactly what happened because we know that Onesimus is again mentioned in the Epistle to the Colossians, described by Paul as “our faithful and dear brother” (Col. 4:9). In challenging the cultural norm of Philemon’s status as slave owner, Paul asked him to set aside his position as one in complete authority to being one under authority, in reality, under GOD’s authority.
In a branch of philosophy that deals with Subjects and Objects, the Subject is always the observer, and the Object is what is being observed. An example would be if I saw a bicycle. I would be the Subject, and what I observed (the bicycle) would be the Object. Now let’s add a little theological thought to the example. If I had built the bicycle and painted it blue. I would still be the Subject, but now I would be more than an observer, I would be a creator who defined the nature of the Object I observed; a blue bicycle. Stick with me. This is going somewhere.
For the moment, think of GOD as the Divine Subject, creating, interacting with and observing the Objects of His creation. Using the example of the blue bicycle, this Divine Subject would have full authority to define the nature of whatever and whomever He created. As His created Objects (imbued with His image), those who say they believe in Him would, theoretically, demonstrate the nature He desired, i.e. consistent with His image. But the combined impact of the fall and the freedom we have often leads to us choosing to live as if we were the Subjects and not the Objects.
Characteristics of a Subject person include having an identity not dependent on another, having the authority to make choices for self and possibly for others, having these attributes recognized and accepted by others, and/or receiving credit for whatever positive achievements in life are attained. In our relationship with GOD, can we both be Subjects? If we insist on being a Subject person, can we be useful to GOD, that is can we be as Onesimus?
Philemon was probably very accustomed to being a Subject person in his world, giving definition to the life of Onesimus and others, something that Onesimus apparently rejected as expressed by his escape. Related questions I’ve been wrestling with include whether, despite my declaration of faith in Jesus Christ and my choice to follow Him as a disciple, do I express myself more as a Subject person or as an Object person. Using my own explanation, do I consistently allow (and even seek for) GOD to give my life definition or do I exert self-interest in that? Am I willing to be the Object to His Supreme Subject? It seems to me those are the same questions Philemon faced.
A substitute word for Object is Servant. Rephrased, the question becomes: am I willing to be a Servant to GOD, that is think like one and live like one in my relationship with Him? And here’s the kicker: am I willing to do the same in my relationship with others? If I am truly following Jesus, who said, “I came to serve, not to be served” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45), then I need to see others as Subject people. I think this is what Mother Teresa meant when she talked about seeing Jesus in every person to whom she ministered. I pray (literally) that whatever usefulness I may have to the kingdom will be guided by that thinking and by walking that pathway.
© Byron L. Hannon, 2019. All rights reserved to original text content.