Friendships in the Bible III: Onesimus and Philemon

Of all the stories of friendship in the Bible, I love Onesimus and Philemon most. Philemon is such a tiny little book in the New Testament but its meanings and implications are profound and drastic.

Philemon is a book that must shake us to our core if and change our relationships and social life if we take it seriously.

It centers, appropriately enough, around Philemon, a wealthy man of good social standing, who becomes a Christian possibly through Paul’s ministry, and his rebellious, runaway slave, Onesimus.

In those days, masters owned slaves. It was not an equal relationship by any means. In ordinary circumstances, Philemon and Onesimus were certainly not relating to each other as people, peers or equals. They would not have been friends.

Onesimus stole money from Philemon and ran away. We’re not told more than that except that in some extraordinary way, he ended up with Paul in Rome and became a Christian. He could have stayed there and begun a new life, but Paul was keen to see Philemon and Onesimus reconciled -- and in a bigger way than just a master and slave.

Paul writes his short letter to Philemon and asks them to accept Onesimus back – as a brother. Not as a slave, but as a child of God like himself, in fact a friend.

Philemon is being called on to give up all the social expectations of his day. Accepting Onesimus back as a slave would be a scandal, even with a suitable punishment. But to welcome him into his house as an equal and friend and valued human being would really turn things upside down! Philemon would probably find himself on the outside amongst his peers.

This is Christianity that really makes waves. To go against social norms, class and race lines or socioeconomic status and make friends with people who are considered ‘lesser’ is a very courageous thing to do.

Philemon is being asked to do it and to demonstrate the character of God in a beautifully scandalous way – a very costly way to himself.

This is what God saving love brings us to do – to break down the man-made barriers of hatred of difference that we create and maintain at the cost of people’s lives. Social scandals are as real today as they were in Philemon’s time. But Christian friendship goes across money, status, and social acceptance. Christian friendship is radical and beautifully scandalous.