“I have four sons,” my second father would say. My birth father had been killed in World War II. My mother remarried when I was five. I now had a “stepfather.” For years, in explaining why my last name was different from that of my three brothers, that was the word I used: my “stepfather.” But I never liked it. As I grew up, I began to realize he was indeed my father, my second father. And he would always name me as his son.
I used to think Paul’s letter to Philemon was a masterpiece of rhetorical manipulation. But what Paul is doing here is renaming a relationship, that between Onesimus, a runaway “slave,” and Philemon, his “master”—sowing seeds, one hopes, of transformation. Paul describes himself an old man, im-prisoned, speaking to Philemon out of love, not wanting to force him. Then, to the point: Onesimus has become like a son to Paul; he is indeed “useful” (the meaning of “Onesimus” in Greek) to them both. Paul begs Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as his brother in Christ, indeed, to see him as Paul himself.
Some fault Paul for not doing enough here to name the evil of slavery. I see this letter useful in a different way—as a “Christic,” seed-sowing action, naming the transformation that happens at baptism. We are baptized into the dying and rising of Christ and enter a new world; all are now brothers and sisters in Christ. When does the kingdom of God come? When we recognize and name who we truly are to each other. When the truth sets all of us free.