He was the one who could lose the most if the deal fell through!! In human terms, the most that the letter writer could lose was a friendship with a church leader. In human terms the most that the letter’s recipient could lose was nothing, since the slave had already been long gone anyway. But, the most the letter carrier could lose in human terms was his very life, if the slave owner so desired!!
Of course, what you just read may not make sense to you if you haven’t already read parts 1 and 2 of “Leopards and Spots.” So, you might want to play a little catch up, by going to part 1 (dated Sept 2, 2012) and part 2 (dated October 2, 2012). While at either one, take several minutes to also read through the brief letter mentioned in the first paragraph. In any case, for this post let’s think about the letter carrier, whose life was at risk by the simple deed of carrying a letter to someone he knew. The letter carrier is named Onesimus – the one whose life was at stake.
Onesimus was a runaway slave who at some point made contact with a prisoner in a Roman jail, whose name was Paul. Yes, it is the Apostle Paul of the New Testament. The details of how Onesimus became a slave of Philemon, who lived in the city of Colossae, are by our time in history unknown.
Slavery was so common in many parts of the Roman Empire that in some places 1/5 to 1/3 of the population were slaves. Prior to becoming enslaved, a people might have been:
- A person captured by Romans soldiers in a battle, or captured by pirates, or by slave hunters
- An infants abandoned in the streets or in the garbage, and picked up to be raised only to be sold as a child slave
- A convicts whose sentence was slavery
- Those who had run up so much debt that the price paid for them as a slave would pay the debt
- Christians who sold themselves into slavery to help out another Christian!!!
The slaves were deprived of liberty and equality, and usually denied dignity. They were considered “things”, “walking tools” or “living property.” Captured runaway slaves were especially subjected to brutal punishment. They could be crucified to make a statement to other slaves who contemplated fleeing from their owner.
In this kind of context, Onesimus ended up in Rome where he could mingle in the crowd and escaping notice. Once there in Rome, for reasons unknown to us, Onesimus made contact with Paul, who is in prison, and Onesimus himself became a Christian.
As a Christian, Onesimus faced the serious decision – “What do I do as a runaway slave?” Rome didn’t extend emancipation papers to slaves who became Christians!!! Becoming a Christian gave him forgiveness of sins. BUT, it didn’t change his legal status. Onesimus was still a run-away slave!! And, now what??
He goes back to Philemon, to the city of Colossae, with a letter in his hand, written by the Apostle Paul to be delivered to Philemon. It seems pretty awkward, doesn’t it? In fact, it seems almost bizarre. Although carrying Paul’s letter for Philemon, during the entire trip back to Philemon’s home Onesimus had no assurance as to what Philemon would do.
Of course, Onesimus did have the option during his trip of simply running away to another city and say, “So much for Paul and his ideas.” But, that didn’t happen. Onesimus assumed responsibility for his actions and obligations. And, that is the point. The fact is that without that sense of responsibility, healthy Christian life is unreachable.
All of us, both you the reader and I the writer, live in some kind of society. In all societies, there is some degree of contract with others. It might be a very basic contract – “I don’t murder you. You don’t murder me.” In most cases, of course, that contract is much more elaborated into regulations and laws. Some of the laws may seem strange, unreasonable, and even confusing to many of the people affected by the existence of those laws and expectations. Some societies have well known mechanism available to change laws. In other societies, it is very difficult, and perhaps impossible, for a common person to do anything to bring about a change of laws.
It is at this point that we come to a difficult matter for one who seeks to live in a God honoring manner. It appears to be the case that God expects His children to responsibly fulfill the demands and duties that correspond to his social contract. It appears that as a child of God, no one can cop out of the duties of such situations as being a parent, a spouse, an employee or employer, a citizen, a church member, a neighbor, or one of many, many more societal roles.
All this might seem to be a huge burden. I would be remiss to pretend otherwise. But, the burden is not the entire story. In reality, living responsibly, in light of the social contracts we sign on to by virtue of living in a given society, frees us from the burden of guilt, of worry about what someone will say or do because of our irresponsibility, and from the prison of falsehood and deceit as we try to cover up our violations of the elements of our social contracts.
The leopard Onesimus, like the apostle Paul and the slave owner Philemon experienced “spot removal” that only Jesus can bring. Onesimus illustrates for us that no one on the planet should be more responsible to society than the Christian.