God seems to hold a special place in his heart for runaways. The entire sweep of scripture is littered with accounts and parables of those, as the great hymn ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing’ puts it ‘prone to wander’.
Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden of Eden, to Jacob avoiding Esau, Jonah hightailing it to Tarshish, Jesus’ parable about the lost son, the disciples deserting Jesus after Gethsemane; the Bible oftentimes feels like the grand story of runaways.
Paul’s letter to Philemon fits rather snugly into this narrative. Paul is writing from a prison cell in Rome to Philemon, one of the leaders of the church in Colossae, about a runaway slave called Onesimus. Although we do not know the reasons why, we do know that Onesimus ran away from Philemon’s house, crossed paths with Paul in Rome, and became a follower of Christ.
Letter writing was an expensive undertaking in the 1st century so despite our craving for details, Paul keeps Onesimus’ testimony incredibly brief: ‘I appeal to you for my son, Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains’ (v10).
As an interesting aside, Onesimus’ name means ‘useful’; feel free to chuckle along with Paul as he explains to Philemon ‘Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me’ (v11).
Though Onesimus is proving useful to Paul in his ministry (v13), Paul does not use his authority in the church to demand Onesimus’ time from Philemon, but appeals to him from a place of love: ‘Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love’ (v8-9).
The letter to Philemon has been called by some as a Christian justification of slavery, presumably due to an apparent lack of condemnation on Paul’s part (for Paul’s thoughts on slave trading, see 1 Tim 1:10).
However, Paul exhorts Philemon to welcome Onesimus back ‘no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother’ (v16) and to ‘welcome him as you would welcome me’ (v17b). In a society which gave masters free reign to exercise capital punishment on runaways, welcoming Onesimus back as if he were welcoming Paul was radically countercultural.
So in Philemon, we see once more, as ever in God’s story, the repentant runaway is to be treated as if they were a member of the family. Onesimus, the lost son, me, you.