Racism Theology

My very ‘heart’: Who Onesimus is in Christ – Reflections on Philemon (Part 3)

Philemon and his church were good believers. And they were kind. But they had a blindspot when it came to class and/or race. They didn’t know who Onesimus really was. They didn’t know a) how intrinsically valuable he is just because he was made in the image of God or b) who He had become in Christ. Now Paul begins to show them:

Philemon v7: Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

“Hearts” – Hearts here is the greek work splagchna, which is not the most commonly deployed term in the New Testament. Rather, this term, which basically means spleen, is rarely used in the New Testament in general, but is repeatedly deployed in the letter Philemon (see v11 and v20). Furthermore, usage of this particular phrase appears to bookend a large chunk of the letter between v7 and v21. And because this vivid appeal to gut-wrenching compassion shows up multiple times in this very short and personally written letter, we must read it as a very heartfelt plea to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus (see “Empowered confrontation – reflections on Philemon [part 4” for more on Paul’s usage of this particular word for heart in his letter to Philemon).

yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—

“I prefer to appeal…” Appeal here is Parakaleo, which if we break it down works something like this: para (call) kaleo (beside). The word for “old man” here is Presbyteres, which can be taken to mean senior citizen, but the same word that is used for elder/overseer in an ecclesiological sense. What’s fascinating here is that “old man” and “prisoner” are heartfelt and vulnerable appeals to wisdom and mercy. One possible ecclesiological implication is that, if you read Presbyteres that way in this, it suggests church elders must be equally humble leaders. Could this be a play on words? My view is that Paul is doing both and pointing out his authority, but simultaneously not using it.

“Prisoner” – Here, Paul calls back to v1 where he himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus rather than of the Roman Empire. However, here Paul is identifying with Onesimus the ex-slave who he met in prison; and who met Jesus.

v10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment

“My child Onesimus” – The Geneva Study Bible suggests the name Onesimus means “useful” or “profitable” and was “frequently given to bondservants[/slaves]” (see also Col 4:9). Before Onesimus wasn’t even his own, now he is chosen and adopted into relationship with God and the family of heaven on earth, the church. Where did Onesimus and Paul meet? In prison, in the dark place. And therefore the scene evokes the spirit of adoption whereby our spirits cry “Abba, Father” (Rom 8:15).

– “in my imprisonment” or who I fathered in chains. Again, Paul is identifying his relationship with Onesimus in the context of imprisonment (see also v1 and v9), perhaps signifying both Paul’s and Onesimus’ relative imprisonment.

11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)

“…useless to you…” Useless? On first reading this appear very harsh and even abusive towards Onesimus, but lest we read Pual as some king enabler of such abuse, it is worth interpreting this text with more nuance. Firstly, usage of the term “useless” is a play on words relating to the fact that Onesimus means profitable or fruitful. Perhaps Jamiesson, Fausset and Brown (JFB) commentary is right when it points out that, while it sounds coarse to us, it was a “mild expression”. Either way, “useless to you” does not mean Paul thinks Onesimus was useless as a slave and cannot be used to argue in any pro-slavery sense, because the phrase is “useless to YOU”.

Rather, Paul is wittily contrasting Philemon’s view of Onesimus with the literally and perhaps prophetic meaning of his given name. Craig Keener adds: “Many slaveholders stereotyped slaves (among whom they sometimes named Phrygian slaves, as would be the case here) as lazy and ill-disciplined”. Paul, its seems, is working against such stereotyping, saying words to effect of: “He may be useless to you, but he’s Onesimus to me”.

According to Vincent, the wording used here is the same language [“useless servant”] as in the parable of the servants in Matthew 25:30. That being the case, there is the implication that Philemon rather than Onesimus is being associated with the “useless servant” in that case who was given gold, but didn’t invest it. Such a reading would cast Onesimus as the gold and Philemon as the lazy servant thereby inverting the prejudice actually exhibited by Philemon his treatment of Onesimus.

“…now he is indeed useful to you and to me…” (John 8:36)

Philemon’s mistake here is to not recognise the value right in front of him. As Christians, we “know no man unto the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16), rather our goal is to prophetically call forth and draw out the good that God has put into each other. However, Philemon couldn’t see past his own prejudice. In order to remedy the situation Paul sends “his very heart” – Onesimus – to confront Philemon.

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