Do you like to be useful? You fixed the problem, edited someone’s report, saved your business a ton of money, gave a ride, and made dinner. It feels good to know that your efforts were useful to someone else. “Thanks for your help!” “I’m glad to be of use.” For many people, being useful is the best possible purpose.
Conversely, when you are feeling down, you might say, “I feel so useless.” We say useless, but the feeling below the surface is worthless. I like to feel useful, but imagine someone asking your spouse to describe you in one word, and they say, “useful.” My spouse is so useful around the house, so practical to have around.” Would you feel proud or deeply insulted? Sometimes I don’t want to be useful. I want to be loved and valued for who I am, even when my utility is limited. If people value us only because we are useful, what happens to the relationship when we are no longer of use?
Being useful has a shadow side. When someone befriends us only to gain from us, we feel used. When an organization takes our labor and ideas but drops us, like in corporate downsizing, we might feel “used up.”
It’s a paradox to preach on Labor Day weekend, where we celebrate the value of our work, also to be aware that we are not valuable just because we work. Today we are doing a blessing of hands, and one of the themes is that our hands are God’s hands, through which God’s work of love and justice are done in the world. Our hands work, our hands give, but sometimes are hands need to rest and receive. Hands are for working, and they are also for just holding.
My attention was focused this week on verse 11 of Philemon, where the Apostle Paul said, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he had become useful both to you and to me.” He was useless; now, he is useful. Paul is writing about a man called Onesimus, an escaped slave. This short letter is written to Philemon, a wealthy enslaver who is also a leader of a church in Colossae. Philemon is so important to the church that the congregation meets in his house. Imagine a significant church leader is also a slaveholder.
This short 21-verse letter was hotly contested theological real estate between abolitionists and slaveholders. Southern preachers point out Paul didn’t call for the abolition of slavery, just the acceptance of this one enslaved person. Plus, he was a runaway, and he should go home. It’s all right here in the Bible. Add this to the letter of the Colossians, which was probably not Paul, which said, “Slaves obey your masters,” and Southern preachers thought they had an airtight case.
Abolitionist preachers pointed out that Paul is really calling for manumission of slaves. He was asking Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ and set him free from bondage. Just as Paul wrote in Galatians, “In Christ, there is never slave nor free…but all are one in Christ Jesus. Preachers couldn’t settle this argument; only gunpowder, bayonets, and 620,000 Americans dead on the battlefield could end slavery. In truth, we are still not over that war.
Paul was not an expert on 19th-century slavery or 21st-century racial issues. He lived in a world before any thought of an abolitionist movement. Philemon won’t give us a blueprint for our vexing problems still radiating from a history of slavery. But Paul does give us a theology of personhood, community, and how God values everyone. The apostle has a pastor’s heart as he deals with a delicate church issue that could easily split a congregation. Here is the dilemma. Onesimus is supporting Paul, who is in prison for preaching his beliefs. Onesimus has been a regular visitor, probably the one getting him extra food and writing materials so Paul can correspond with his churches. Four letters attributed to Paul mention being written in prison; Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Without Onesimus, these books might not have been written. Paul might have lacked pen and paper or even died.
Paul is now sending him back to Philemon, in what must have been a difficult decision. What will happen to Onesimus when he returns? Will he be beaten, shackled, or maybe sold to someone else? What happens to Onesimus if he stays? If Paul dies, Onesimus is still an escaped slave with no protector, and the law will eventually catch up to him.? So, Paul decides the least terrible option is to send him back with a letter encouraging leniency and full acceptance into the Christian community.
Paul lays it on thick, flattering Philemon for his good faith and support of the church. But the moral pressure is there. Paul notes he is in prison, stirring sympathy for his plight, so why keep Onesimus captive? He is clear that Philemon knows what the right thing is, so do it not because of pressure but because it is right. Here’s the interesting twist that had my attention. Back to the verse about Onesimus formerly being useless but now useful. The name Onesimus means “useful.” Imagine being named “Useful.” There goes Useful Jones. Do you know anyone called “Useful?” It sounds like a slave name. Who is that? He’s Useful. It doesn’t sound like a name. It’s a status. It’s a name you would give to a plow horse—time to hitch up old Useful. Listen to Paul again. He was useless to you as a slave. Now, if you free him and welcome him as a brother and co-laborer in Christ, he could again be useful. Imagine if this book of the Bible had been named after Onesimus and then translated his name to English. The Book of Useful, the Slave.
In some ways, Paul had a more radical thoughts than being an abolitionist. It’s one thing to be against the institution of slavery. It has been much harder for the church to deal with true equality and create a beloved community than to end slavery with a brutal war. In 1963, 100 years after the civil war, MLK preached that Sunday morning worship was still the most segregated hour in America, and we are still falling short today. Paul’s letters were often read in church service. Imagine what happened when Paul’s letter was set in motion in Philemon’s church, the church that met at his home. What would the congregation think of this letter? Were there other slaves in the church? Other slaveholders? Would Philemon be embarrassed to free Onesimus? Or would the whole church revolt against Paul’s authority because this would be too radical? What would their friends and neighbors think of this radical step of freeing even one slave? It had to be at least as controversial as putting a Black Lives Matter or a Rainbow flag on the church lawn, don’t you think? Breaking social conventions about the relationship between slaves and masters was a big ask from Paul.
For a more modern example, I’m currently reading Colin Woodward’s new book, “Union,” about the forging of the idea of America before the Civil War. (Woodward writes in the Portland Herald and authored “The Lobster Coast.”) He looks at the influence of Fredrick Douglass, who went from slavery to becoming a great orator. As a child, Freddy had no idea he was enslaved until he was six. Then he was taken to live on the master’s plantation, fed in a trough with the other slave children. Douglas wrote extensively about the inhumanity he witnessed on the plantation, and he was fortunate to be moved to a cousin’s home in Baltimore, where he was given the job of being a babysitter for a younger white boy.
Baltimore had a large population of free blacks. Freddy is well-fed, sleeps in a real bed, and is never beaten. The mother of the house, Sophia Ault, grew up as a pious Methodist in an anti-slavery household. She teaches him how to read from the Bible and encourages him to look up to her when speaking. He can hardly imagine such kindness from a white woman. But when her husband finds out, he is shocked and furious. (You can’t teach a slave (he used the N-word) to read because then they will all want to be free. A slave should only know how to obey their master, or they are no good anymore). So, she stops, and the relationship changes between her and Freddie. Freddy understands her kindness only goes so far; he is still enslaved, and any terrible thing could happen to him. He is sent back to Virginia and loaned out to a farmer who was known as a slave breaker. (Union, p. 63-66)
I tell this story to make the dilemma for Philemon and his church real. Everyone believes in kindness, as long as it is useful. But prejudice tries to turn kindness into a social vice by making some people lower, not a genuine part of a community. Sophia Ault’s strong Methodist faith could not transcend the social power of the slave system to challenge her husband or social convention. At least she gave Fredrick Douglass the desire to learn and the ability to read, but faith doesn’t only apply when things are easy.
So what happened to Onesimus? I wish there were a second Philemon that gave us the follow-up, but history is silent. The ending to Paul’s letter is left to us, the reader, to complete. The idea that some people are only of value as cheap labor is still prevalent. In a few moments, we will bless our hands. Our hands are God’s hands in the world. God’s work in the world isn’t always mysterious; God works through us to bring about love and justice. Paul believed faith, hope and love are strong enough to transform us; therefore, we can help transform the world through love. It is in our hands. May we be useful.