Useless and Useful
Can people change? Can a person who is undependable, useless, and a runaway become dependable, useful, and a precious brother who comes back home? In Luke, Jesus tells the story about the prodigal son. In Philemon, Paul tells the story of Onesimus, the useless slave who returned home as a priceless brother.
“I appeal to you (Philemon) about my son, the son I fathered while in chains—Onesimus. In the past he was useless to you, but now he has become useful to you and to me. I’m sending him back to you—the one who has become my very heart. If I had my wishes, I’d keep him right here with me while I’m in chains for the Gospel, so that he could continue to meet my needs just as you would if you were here.”
Onesimus was a common name for slaves in the first century. The name meant “useful,” and masters wanted their servants to live up to their name. But in the past in Philemon’s household, his servant had proved useless. We don’t know the details, but we do know that for some reason Onesimus left Colossae, ended up in Rome, and somehow met an old man, a prisoner who, according to the end of Acts, was under house arrest in Rome. Onesimus, Philemon’s servant, met the Apostle Paul, and Paul helped him meet Jesus. Paul became his spiritual father.
The transformation was real. The useless servant became a precious caring son. Before he met Paul, he was not only useless, but worse--without Christ. Now in Christ he has become one of Paul’s most dependable aids. The apostle would love to keep Onesimus there in Rome with him but feels compelled to send Onesimus back to Philemon. And Paul writes this letter to make sure Onesimus is received not as a slave, but as a beloved brother in Christ.
LORD, thanks that you’re continuing to take useless, worthless runaways and transforming them into your beloved children, children who prove their family name by their sacrificial, selfless good deeds for others. Help me to never stop believing that your grace can change useless into useful.
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