20 September 2017

What happened when… Onesimus went back?

The day he had longed for arrived, just as the sun began its dawn journey into the sky over Colossae. With the master standing in front of him, the slave quaked. Nervousness was not the usual response of Onesimus when the man who owned him gave out his instructions for the day. In fact, in recent times Philemon began the day praying with his staff, requesting the One whom he addressed as Jesus, Son of the One True God, to grant them protection and peace. At first, Onesimus mocked, One True God indeed! How could anyone get by with only one god! Yet Onesimus could not get past the fact that his master had changed, and if Philemon wanted to attribute that to a god called Jesus then that was okay with him. He would stick with Artemis of the Ephesians: daughter of Zeus, and goddess of Asia Minor! And it looked like he might finally get the chance to worship at her temple, if what the master was asking happened.

“Are you ill, Onesimus?” the master inquired, noticing the slave’s pallor. “No, master,” Onesimus replied, “I… I… am humbled that you trust me with this task. I will leave for Ephesus immediately.”

Now agitated lest he allowed his anxiety to show, Onesimus quickly prepared to make the long journey to Ephesus to procure an item that was needed for his master’s business. One hundred and twenty miles and no-one would know that he was a slave! One hundred and twenty miles acting like a freeman: stopping where he wished; eating when he wanted; bread in his leather script and coins in the purse given to him by Philemon for the task appointed. He even had an ass to ride on!

Onesimus thrilled at the touch of the cool breeze on his face as Colossae dipped beneath the horizon that was now regressing behind him. Ephesus lay ahead: gateway to freedom… for Onesimus had no intention of going back! Even the choking dust blown up by a passing wagon couldn’t bother the wayward slave, for he knew that by the time he was expected home Rome would almost be in sight. Where better to hide than in a city of one million souls!

He would never be owned by anyone again!

Weeks soon passed as Onesimus slowly made his way to the centre of the Empire. While the stolen money had purchased his passage on a merchant vessel to Rhegium on the southern toe of Italy, Onesimus resorted to begging transport from cart to cart for the rest of his journey. Yet every one of the three hundred plus miles along the Appian Way brought a thrill to the runaway’s heart. It seemed that all of life was heading for Rome!

His final cart-ride brought him to the Porta Cappena: gateway into the great city of Rome. More accustomed to country-life, the sight that met Onesimus was beyond his wildest dreams. People from every land crowded the streets: horses pushed the thronging masses aside as people of importance rode on gilded carriages, pack animals and hand-carts laden with goods from around the world made slow progress toward the multiplicity of markets.

He had arrived in the place of his dreams! Free to do as he wished and go wherever his fancy took him! Suddenly, a deafening roar shook the ground beneath his weary feet. Terrified, Onesimus took to his heels, running hither and thither looking for cover! The noise in the air was pierced only by the mocking laughter of a nearby stall holder as he watched the stranger cower in fear of the booming assault on his ears.

“Stranger!” he called out. “You’ve come to Rome on a good day! The Circus Maximus is hosting the Emperor’s chariot race!”

Onesimus slithered away in embarrassment. Already overawed by the sprawling metropolis, the runaway slave recognized that he must learn to fit in without drawing attention to himself. A voice calling out in the distance brought back the reality of who he really was.

“Who will bid five hundred denarii for this strong Ethiopian?” came the words carried on the breeze. Waves of nausea overwhelmed Onesimus as he remembered the day he was the one standing like a piece of cheap meat in an Ephesus marketplace. Momentarily, fear of being found out shackled his limbs to the cobblestones beneath. His brain argued that he belonged in the slave market, but his will wrenched him away from the sickening sight, where human life was a mere business proposition! Sixty million slaves throughout the Roman Empire… and more in Rome than anywhere else the Roman standard was raised! That fact alone, would cause Onesimus untold problems. Casual labourers were not needed where slaves already carried out all the work! Soon the hunger pangs ripped at his innards, and Onesimus competed with the dogs, rushing to pick up the scraps discarded by those who were more fortunate than he. Rome’s streets were only paved with gold for the few. Onesimus tended to keep to the narrow backstreets, where the stench made him long for the clean air of the Lycus Valley. Row after row of six-storey high tenement buildings became his lodging place, if he could persuade someone to give him a room. And he discovered that there were those who frequently showed him kindness, but their talk of a god called Jesus reminded him too much of someone else… someone he was desperately trying to forget. The small man sitting in the corner of the room was speaking when Onesimus arrived with his new-found friend. Onesimus’ promise to repay his friend’s kindness by hearing the Christian teacher could not be put off any longer. Slipping into the corner of the room he sat to listen; the atmosphere electrified by the speaker’s words.

“Jesus took off His robe… and began to wash the disciple’s feet,” the man named Paul started to explain. Onesimus’ hackles began to rise. He’s talking about a slave – I came to hear about God’s Son. The runaway slave railed against what Paul was saying, but his escape was blocked by his smiling friend and the many others who were now filling the room… including the Roman soldier guarding this unlikely prisoner of Rome. The minutes passed into hours and Onesimus’ mood shifted from disbelief to anger and back to disbelief. So much of what Paul said didn’t make sense. “For your sakes Jesus became poor, so that by His poverty he could make you rich.”

And Paul told them that Jesus Himself had said: “For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many.”

Day after day Onesimus found himself listening to Paul’s words about the suffering Saviour: the One who thought nothing of taking on the position of a slave, and went even further by dying a criminal’s death on the cross. And He did it for me, was the thought that would not leave him. Me: the sinner; the thief; the runaway slave. Then one day Onesimus made the journey to that cross in repentance and faith; the cross where Jesus had died to pay for his sins. And for the first time in his life he was truly free!

The days that followed were purposeful and happy as he busied himself helping Paul and those of his new Christian family. He served as never before recognising that whatever he did he wanted to do it for the glory of God.

There was just one problem, and it was man-shaped. Philemon! The master he had robbed and wronged… and his face kept springing up in the forgiven slave’s mind.

Onesimus observed that Paul wrote a lot of letters. And he loved to listen as Paul dictated each one before they were delivered to various churches by his godly friend Tychius. However, when Paul started writing a letter to the church at Colossae, Onesimus could barely breathe because of accusing guilt! And what made matters worse: Philemon had been led to Christ by Paul… he was Paul’s spiritual son and friend.

Instantly, Onesimus knew what he had to do. He had to go back! Philemon had the right to do what he wished with him… yet, however bad that might be Onesimus knew that it would turn out to be the final step in making him truly free.

So, Paul took up his pen and wrote a moving personal letter to Philemon. “My plea, Philemon, is that you show kindness to Onesimus. He is no longer a slave; he is a beloved brother.”

Forgive him, Paul was pleading. Then by including an offer to pay the debt owed because of Onesimus’ theft he reminded Philemon of the great debt that was paid for his own sin and waywardness by Christ. How could one forgiven man not forgive another?

Onesimus was smiling as he set out on the Appian Way once more. This time Tychius was beside him and a letter was in his pouch. He had arrived in Rome thinking he was free, but as he left the great city he knew that only forgiveness sets a man free. For that he thanked Jesus… the rest was now in Philemon’s hands.

Catherine Campbell

Author’s note: We are not told in Scripture what actually happened when Onesimus arrived back in Colossae, but you can read Paul’s letter for yourself in Philemon. This short letter was the first revolutionary step of the early church in making changes to the endemic practice of slavery, which would take centuries for Paul’s spiritual descendants to change.