13 November 2008 Thursday of the 32nd Week in Ordinary Time
Philemon 7-20: A New Order
There are secular conventions and laws. For example, there is a specific behavior expected of an employee when he or she deals with the boss. This is our present social order. But as Christians, there are times when we are asked to go beyond these conventions. This is the main point especially in the first reading today: There is a new order in the Kingdom of God. Or there is a new relationship in God’s kingdom.
Philemon is the master of a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus run away from Philemon’s household. He now receives a letter from Paul. Paul is now making his request on behalf of Onesimus, whom he converted to Christianity. Eventually, he has been very close to him, even referring to him, not as a slave, but a son. However, social conventions has it that a slave is a possession of his master. And it was proper for Paul to write him.
And so, Paul requests Philemon to take Onesimus back, but not just as a slave but also a beloved fellow Christian, a status that is more important than the social order. Paul says that he has an apostolic right to command Philemon to do what he wants; but he would rather make his request out of love.
Philemon is known for his love and faith for the Lord and his fellow Christians. At the beginning of Paul’s letter, he was praised by Paul telling the small community gathered in private homes that he was a model Christian. At that time, they were quite a few in number. They worshipped not in a big church, but in households.
It is interesting to note Paul’s style. Onesimus means “useful” in Greek. And so Paul plays upon the word, “useful”. Paul wrote to Philemon that Onesimus was useless to Philemon before he ran away. When he became a Christian, Onesimus has been true to his name. He was useful to Paul especially in his imprisonment. Now Paul requests Philemon to become a ‘useful’ Christian by receiving Onesimus back in Christian love.
The secular order dictates that a runaway slave deserves severe punishment. The new order in Christ requests a new way of treating not just a fellow Christian, but a person.
Fast forward: Though some scholars disagree, there is a belief that he was the same, Onesimus consecrated a bishop by one of the Apostles. He took the ecclesiastical throne in Ephesus, after Timothy. During the persecution of Emperors Domitian and Trajan, Onesimus was imprisoned in Rome and martyred by stoning. Together with the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), we consider him a saint. We celebrate his memorial on February.
It is safe then that when we operate under this new relationship, we change people’s lives. Love unleashes our enormous capacity to be useful.