When the Good News was news

Mosaic depicting St. Paul teaching in prison by George Breck, 1909, St. Paul's Within the Walls, Rome. Photo: Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

After having the benefit of 2,000 years of Christianity, we sometimes take the teachings of the Gospel for granted.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Equality before God? We are used to hearing that now. But there was a time when this Gospel teaching, was called “good news” because it was well, news.

It was certainly news to St. Onesimus and St. Philemon.

Sts. Onesimus (pronounced O-nes-i-mus) and Philemon lived in the first century. We learn about them from St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon in the New Testament.

Onesimus was a slave who served a master named Philemon. One day Onesimus stole from Philemon and then beat the rap by fleeing to Rome. So he thought. Justice caught up with him and he ended up in prison. There he met Paul, who was also in chains for the crime of preaching the Good News.

Paul preached the Good News to Onesimus while they were in prison. He lived with Onesimus day by day, sharing a cell. Paul was old then and Onesimus took care of him. This day-to-day contact with the saint had its effect on Onesimus. He accepted Baptism.

“St. Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt, 1627. Photo: Public Domain

Onesimus told Paul about his troubles with Philemon. As Providence would have it, Paul and Philemon happened to know each other.

Philemon was a Christian from Colossae. He had heard Paul preaching and had been converted. He then did what many rich, propertied men of the early Church did — he loaned his beautiful home as a church. Paul knew that Philemon was generous to his fellow Christians. He also knew that Philemon was hopping mad at Onesimus.

So Paul interceded in the affair and wrote Philemon a letter asking for mercy for Onesimus.

It is a short letter but one which the Church fathers recommend to anyone who wishes to learn the art of gentle persuasion.

Paul begins with warm greetings. How’s your wife? How’s your soldier friend? How’s everybody in the parish church which meets at your house? He tells him he thinks of him, prays for him, and thanks God for him because he was always so generous to the church community.

For I have experienced much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the holy ones have been refreshed by you, brother. (Philemon 7)

Now comes the hard part where Paul acknowledges that he is going to tell Philemon what to do. He is not doing so just because he has the right but out of love. Besides, because cough, cough, I’m old and in prison. Now to the point.

I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Philemon 10)

Paul has baptized Onesimus in prison and has now elevated him as his spiritual son. He who was once a thief is now on the straight and narrow. In fact, says Paul, he’s such a big help to me in prison that I wish he would stay with me. But trusting that you will do the right thing voluntarily and not because I say so I am sending him back to you. You’ll do it for my sake, won’t you? After all, I baptized you, too.

Well … when you put it that way.

My favorite part is yet to come. This is where St. Paul points out the Divine Providence in the whole grisly affair.

Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. (Philemon 15-16)

It has actually been a blessing in disguise to both of you.

Philemon listened to Paul and forgave Onesimus. Then he sent Onesimus back again so that he could continue to work with Paul. Paul sends him later to his own city, bearing the Letter to the Colossians. He calls the former fugitive “a trustworthy and beloved brother, who is one of you” (Colossians 4:9). Later, Philemon became bishop of Gaza. According to ancient lore, Onesimus became bishop of Berea. Other sources say it was Ephesus. Either way, master and slave both became bishops. Eventually, both became martyrs, as well.

Painting depicting the death of Onesimus, from the Menologion of Basil II, circa A.D. 1000. Photo: Public Domain

St. Paul’s short little letter (only one chapter consisting of 25 verses), often overlooked, allows us a window into the end of paganism and the beginning of Christianity. Under the old system Onesimus and Philemon would be sworn enemies, committed to a lifetime of hostility, fear, and blame. Under the new law of love they are brothers who will labor side by side for the Gospel and share an eternal home.

So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

That’s good news.

St. Onesimus: 

Feast day is Feb. 15 or Feb. 16.

St. Philemon:

Feast day is Feb. 19 or Nov. 22.

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