Today’s second reading is taken from one of Saint Paul’s least famous epistles, the Letter to Philemon. In order to understand it more, we need to place it into historical context. 

Saint Paul wrote this epistle, which some scriptural scholars believe was co-authored by Saint Timothy, who was a companion and an assistant to Paul. Paul writes this letter from his imprisonment in Rome. It is addressed to Philemon, a leader in the Church of Colossae. Most likely, Philemon was a bishop in the Church there. 

Paul is appealing to Philemon on the part of another fellow Christian, Onesimus. We might ask what the relationship is between Philemon and Onesimus. Well, as we might say today, “It’s complicated!” Onesimus is Philemon’s slave and he’s run away.  

The Apostle is appealing to Philemon to take Onesimus back. He is “useful” to Paul, but Paul knows that Onesimus, a good man and a good Christian, is also useful to Philemon and to the Colossian Christian community. In fact, the name that this runaway slave is given is actually a pun — “Onesimus” is an adjective that, in fact, means “useful.” Onesimus is a talented and helpful person, one whom Paul wishes would stay with him, but he knows that his place is with Philemon.

What makes Onesimus useful? Not his skills or his service, but the fact that he is created in the image and likeness of God, just like Philemon. What makes Onesimus useful? It is the fact that, like Philemon, in baptism, Onesimus died with Christ and rose with him to new life. What makes Onesimus useful? It is that he is a brother, a fellow Christian, to Paul, to Philemon, indeed to the whole Body of Christ, the Church. Paul urges Philemon to take Onesimus back into his household, but this time with a difference! 

Saint Paul writes:

“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. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.”
We must recall that Paul is a man of his time. Slavery, while not seen as something good, was part of the ancient world. Paul is not supporting slavery per se, a common misconception concerning this epistle. It was a human institution. Saint Paul, however, keeps his eyes focused not on the things of this world, but instead, on the world to come. In Christ, there is neither slave, nor freeman, neither Gentile nor Jew, neither woman nor man, but all are one in Christ.  

In the light of Christ Jesus, relationships change. A question then as we go about our daily living this week - do we see Christ in every single person whom we encounter? And not just those who look like us, who sound like us, who agree with every single thing we say? Does our shared faith in Christ Jesus change our relationships with each other?  

The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his work, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” writes:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
“I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

This week, look for Christ, for he is there in 10,000 places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.