The common understanding of the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon in Paul’s letter to Philemon is that Onesimus was a slave of Philemon. Though it remains a debated issue, Onesimus had either run away from Philemon or had been sent by him to render service to Paul while he was imprisoned. During this time, Onesimus had become Paul’s “child” and Paul his “father,” Pauline language which indicates the conversion of Onesimus to the Christian faith. Paul and Onesimus were now part of the same family.
This spiritual conversion also indicated for Paul a necessary change in the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon. Philemon was to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.” Paul offers this loaded assessment of the necessity of Philemon’s compliance: “So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.” Onesimus might have left home as a slave, a “living tool,” in the language of Aristotle, but he was coming home as a beloved son and brother, “as a man.”
The story of Onesimus is a challenge when we consider the ancient reality of slavery and the fact that Christians in the first centuries of the common era owned slaves, but the continuing challenge is that we allow our Christian faith to work on social evils that enslave people still today. Our conversions of heart must allow us to see people as potential brothers and sisters and not things to be used for our benefit. While slavery does not exist today de jure, there are many forms of de facto slavery and experts in modern slavery and human trafficking suggest that there are more slaves today than ever before in history.
Paul’s treatment of Onesimus offers us a model for treating every person as a potential child, sister or brother. In a short time, Onesimus had become, in Paul’s words, “my own heart.” A number of commentators have wondered why Paul would not simply demand that Philemon release Onesimus from slavery instead of await his “consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary”; but because slavery was legal in the Roman Empire, Paul had little legal standing to make demands. What he did have, however, was standing as a moral guide and teacher, and he called on his “brother” to do the right thing. He called on Philemon, that is, to be converted and to welcome back a brother and not a slave.
We, however, do not face the conundrum of the legality of slavery or human trafficking as Paul did; they are illegal. Yet slavery flourishes underground, hidden away or hidden in plain sight. Our response is, therefore, clear and obvious: we must not engage in activities that allow the dehumanization of our brothers and sisters to continue, whether that is participating in pornography, the sex trade or other forms of exploitation of human beings. Our task is to work toward the conversion of both exploiter and exploited, just as Paul did, so that both human and spiritual freedom can be enjoyed by all. When we say no to sin, the cement of injustice starts to crumble.
It is in this context that the shocking, even bewildering, teaching of Jesus on the nature of discipleship might be unraveled. Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Hate is a strong word, best understood to mean, “You cannot love anything more than me.” But this linguistic adjustment does not dilute the theological teaching. Calculate the cost of discipleship and measure it against all that you hold dear. Are you willing to turn away from the comforts of social propriety to follow Jesus? Are you willing to challenge the unjust structures of sin? Are you all in? Just as Jesus suggests for his disciples, Paul was all in. He was able to challenge his brother in the Lord to see in a slave the face of God and the face of family. In the enigmatic teaching of the Gospel, when you begin to “hate” your family, the true extent of family is revealed and your brothers and sisters multiplied beyond counting.