I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.
Paul is walking a fine line here. He is writing to Philemon, a brother in Christ and church leader possibly converted through Paul’s own ministry. He wants him to take Onesimus, an escaped slave of Philemon, back and to care for him. Even though it’s likely that Onesimus stole from Philemon as well as escaped. If that wasn’t difficult enough Paul is challenging the culture of slave labor by suggesting to Philemon that Onesimus is now a brother in Christ.
To do this Paul plays with the slave’s name, “Onesimus” It means useful. Onesimus has changed from being a useless thing, a slave, to being a useful person. A slave is an object of labour. It has no rights. It owns nothing. It is traded and used like any object or animal. Yet in Christ Onesimus is now a person. He is now a human being able to make choices. From Object to Subject. This is a common theme in Paul’s teaching and in this letter and situation Paul is calling for the practical expression of this world changing notion. How did it work out?