Of the 27 first-century documents that together make up the New Testament, 13 are letters written to churches or individuals by the apostle Paul. This was a communal exercise: often, the transcript of a discussion between Paul and co-workers, in response to a presenting issue; carried and read out to the recipients by further co-workers.
From prison in Ephesus (a major city in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey), Paul sent a letter to the church in Colossae (a small city in Asia Minor). With it, he sent a personal message to Philemon, in whose home that church met, concerning the letter-carrier, Onesimus.
Onesimus was a runaway slave, a slave of Philemon’s household. The name Onesimus means ‘Useful’, but he was not. ‘Onesimus’ was a common name conferred upon a slave. It speaks of a society in which a person’s value was determined by utility, by their usefulness. A slave is useful, until they are no longer useful.
Onesimus runs away to the anonymity of Ephesus, where, as luck or divine will would have it, he somehow comes across Paul. It is unlikely that they had met in person previously, though Onesimus would have known about Paul through the conversion of his master Philemon. Though under no obligation to do so, and at personal risk, Onesimus finds Paul in prison and begins to serve him. Over time, he, too, comes to faith in Jesus.
Some time later, Paul persuades Onesimus to return to Colossae, and sends a letter advocating for him. In it, he speaks of Onesimus not, primarily, as one who has fulfilled the role of a useful slave, but as one who has become like both a child and a brother to him. Likewise, he invites Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a brother; not simply as a useful member of the household, but as a member of God’s family.
We live in a society in which, as in that of Paul and Philemon and Onesimus, people are valued in as much as they are useful. And as those shaped by our environment, this is easily internalised. We observe that the elderly, the disabled, the long-term sick, the unemployed, the asylum-seeker barred from work, are not valued by society. We also observe our own struggle with, say, having gone from being a teacher to a retired teacher; with the empty-nest; with the infirmity of aging.
Where is your identity found?
In your role, the useful contribution you make to society?
Or in being, and knowing that you are, a child of God?