Called to treat a slave as a brother

Paul called the best out of Onesimus and Philemon

Forgiveness ranks as one of Christianity’s leading traits. In the Gospels we see Jesus both forgiving sins and telling us, through Peter, that we must forgive “77 times” (Mt 18:22).

St. Onesimus provides a model of forgiveness. This first-century runaway slave was the subject of St. Paul’s shortest letter, written to Onesimus’ master, St. Philemon.

Onesimus, whose name means “helpful” or “profitable,” apparently stole money from Philemon and his wife, St. Appia. They were rich and influential citizens of Colossae, where they had a home church and were known for their generosity.

Onesimus and Paul met while Paul was in prison in Rome. The letter is generally believed to have been written from 61 to 63 A.D. during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome.

Onesimus had confessed his theft to Paul and became both a Christian and an assistant during Paul’s imprisonment.

So Paul, who knew the need for forgiveness from his own past of persecuting Christians, decided to write to his friend Philemon. In his letter, he asks Philemon to forgive the slave. Paul promises to repay whatever Onesimus has stolen.

Paul calls Onesimus his spiritual son. He asks that Philemon act with love and welcome Onesimus as more than a slave — as a brother, beloved to Paul. See him, Paul says, as both a man and a Christian.

Under Roman law, slaves had no rights. Owners could do whatever they wished to captured, runaway slaves ? brand their foreheads, maim or force them to fight wild animals.

Paul also tells Philemon that he found Onesimus to be of such great assistance that he wished Onesimus could stay in Rome. However, Paul recognized that Onesimus belongs to Philemon and must be returned to him.

Philemon apparently forgave his slave and accepted him as a brother. In Col 4:7-9 Paul refers to Onesimus and Tychichus as delivering that letter along with news of what Paul had been doing.

St. Jerome said Onesimus went on to preach the Gospel and became a bishop, probably of Berea in Macedonia (Greece). Some accounts say he preached in Spain and was martyred.


Sources: “Butler’s Lives of the Saints”;;;;; and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”

Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.

St. Onesimus

When: died c. 90

Where: Rome; Colossae

What: slave; bishop

Feast: Feb. 16