Human Distinctions; February 15, 2023

Philemon 1:10-11 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

Paul could at times be diplomatic to the point of being manipulative, and this letter is probably the prime example of that. It would be hard to fault any detail of it in terms of Paul’s goal of freedom for Onesimus and reconciliation between him and Philemon. This letter is clear evidence that there was nothing racial about slavery throughout most of human history. I’m reminded of a song from the musical play Finian’s Rainbow that says, “When the idle poor become the idle rich, you’ll never know just who is who and who is which.” In the US we have the image of Black slaves from the Civil War period, but race was simply not an issue in the 1st Century. Regardless, here we have the matter of Paul asking Philemon to accept Onesimus not as his slave, but as his brother in Christ. It is quite possible that One­simus was born into slavery, because “Useful” seems like an odd name to give a child, and that’s what “Onesimus” means. Regardless, relationship with Christ as Lord and the resulting status as a child of God clearly trumps any previous distinctions. That’s important to remember today, when people deceived by the devil are trying so hard to divide people on the basis of anything at all. Actually, slavery today is more widespread than it has ever been, though it’s not technically legal in the vast majority of countries. Whatever previous distinctions might have existed, in race, income, social class, or anything else, they become meaningless when covered by the blood of Christ. It has become a cliché, but the ground is truly level at the foot of the cross.

Growing up as a Caucasian in Japan I was both aware of race and aware that it was unimportant. On my first visit to the US, just before I turned four, I encountered my first Black person, and am told I insisted on speaking Japanese to them because in my experience, anyone who had darker skin than my parents had to be Japanese! In the over 70 years since then I have encountered people of many races, not to mention social distinctions and everything else. It is my continuing conviction that however real those distinctions might be at any given moment, in the final analysis they don’t matter at all. The Japanese language has many social distinctions built into it, depending on whether the person addressed is “above, equal, or below” the speaker, as well as interrelated degrees of formality. The fact that I ignore most of that makes my Japanese distinctive, but I think most people find it attractive. Everyone is my equal, which they find refreshing! The thing is, my desire is that they all become my siblings in Christ, just as Paul was trying to do with Onesimus and Philemon. The world is a much better place when we are all family!

Father, thank You for how much this church is indeed family, as various visitors and observers have noted. May we be an accepting, ever-growing family, bringing more and more into the eternal salvation given to Your children alone, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

About jgarrott

Born and raised in Japan of missionary parents. Have been here as an adult missionary since 1981.
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