At the time, running away had seemed like a good idea. He had hated being a slave from the day his feckless father had sold him into slavery to pay his own debts. Up until that moment he had a fairly normal childhood for one born among the city’s poor, life was a bit rough always hovering on the edge of hunger and cold, but, since everyone around him was in much the same position, he never thought about it. There was lots of fun, running round with the other boys, days full of laughter and the occasional hard knocks, but as he grew older he learned to give back as good as he got. That was how one survived. His mother was tender, if rather abstracted; only when he grew older did he realise how tired she must have always been, trying to hold her family together and feed her children in whatever way she could. His father was seldom home, either picking up occasional labouring jobs or down at the local tavern, gambling and drinking. The less work he had, the more time he spent there, sometimes coming home and throwing things around, looking for somewhere that their mother might have secreted a few copper coins.
Then one day, when Onesimus was still a boy, he came home with two burly, well-dressed strangers, pointed at his son and said, in a wheedling tone, “There he is, a good strong lad ..” And before he had worked out what was happening, they had grabbed him and bundled him off to the holding cells for the slave market.
He had never got over the sense of betrayal and humiliation. Is this all he was to his father, a commodity to be bought and sold? He resented every day of his servitude. Philemon was a good master, as masters went, but Onesimus knew that every time Philemon looked at him, he only saw a slave, a thing, not a human being like himself. In the end, it was too much. It was a small mistake, it warranted only a mild reproof from his master, but the overseer, not liking his attitude, took advantage of the moment to sneer at him and put him in his place. To drive the insult home, he struck him across the face.
In the still of the night, Onesimus fled. The only way to get away safely was to get as far away from Colosse as he could as quickly as possible. Anything less was suicide, since the penalty for an escaped slave was death. Using a few trinkets he had taken as he left to pay his way, he drifted eventually to Rome, where an individual could lose himself in the seething masses. He was free, but his heart was still tethered to the shame of slavery..
And then he met the Christians. It took time, it was process, but over time he came to know their Jesus, and his heart was changed. Here was one who did not despise the slave or the outcast, but, although he was the heir to all glory, made himself nothing, and took on slavery of his own free will. What did one do with a love like that? What did one do with a God who turned every social structure upside down? His father may have betrayed him, but here was a Father, the ultimate Father, whom he himself had betrayed in his own wilful heart. How could one reconcile such impossibilities?
Yet there was a place where impossibilities were reconciled, where life took on death and the just took the place of the unjust. It was the place of breaking, and the only place of healing. And, in that place where his old self was crucified with Christ, he discovered a new self: he was a child of God and an heir to every blessing. He could give and serve, not grudgingly under coercion, but freely and gladly, because in this world being a slave was a badge of honour, not a burden of disgrace. In himself he was broken, sinful, useless, but in Christ he was whole, healed and useful. And because he was free for eternity, a child of God and no man’s inferior, he could willingly give himself up to the one who loved him, and become a bondslave of Jesus Christ. This was equality, this was freedom.