Friday, February 25, 2011


The nations will see your vindication,
and all kings your glory;
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.
-Isaiah 62:2 (TNIV)

    I can’t think of a worse insult than that. It’s way past contemptuous and downright dismissive; dismissive of a person’s worth as a human being, dismissive of his redeeming value. To insult someone’s intelligence, or ability, or even his character is one thing. That kind of insult at least berates a person for something done, or not done, or not done well. To call someone useless and mean it is to say that he or she has no place in society, no function in the world.
    To call someone useless is to imply that he wouldn’t be missed.
    Buried in one of the more obscure books of the Bible is a minor character who knew what it was to be considered useless. If you crack open the book of Philemon – which if you’re like me you haven’t done in a while, if ever – you’ll make his acquaintance. His name is Onesimus, and as a matter of fact he’s the main subject of the book – more accurately, Paul’s letter to a man named Philemon. He’s the reason Paul wrote the letter.
    Since the only source we have to reconstruct Onesimus’ story is this short little letter – 25 verses – it’s hard to say much of anything definitive. But reading between the lines, you can put together a few things. Onesimus was a slave of Philemon’s, maybe because he or his father owed money to Philemon or Philemon’s father. Though Philemon had become a Christian after he met Paul, he continued to own his slaves – not uncommon in those times, apparently – though as a Christian he would have been expected to treat them well. Maybe he didn’t though, because Onesimus ran away. Or maybe Onesimus just understandably got tired of belonging to someone else. In any case, he ran away, probably to Rome, and got lost in the big city. It was illegal for a slave to run away, possibly a capital offense, but cities have always provided a certain amount of anonymity for those who don’t want to be found.
    Only, someone found him. Not his old master, Philemon, but his new one. He met Paul, and Paul introduced him to Jesus, and Onesimus found himself belonging to someone all over again. Only this time, he didn’t mind so much.
    Somewhere along the line he must have told Paul his story. I wonder if he was surprised when Paul told him that he had to go back? It’s a little surprising to me, but apparently Paul felt that if Onesimus stayed away, he was defrauding Philemon. And perhaps as surprising as Paul sending Onesimus back is Onesimus actually going.
    He went, and he took along a letter from Paul, a letter that makes it clear to Philemon that his slave is now his brother in Christ, and that he is dear to Paul. “I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you,” Paul wrote. He insists that Philemon should welcome Onesimus back, and implies that he should consider sending him back to continue helping Paul.
    Somewhere along the line, Paul must have heard something. It sounds like something he might have heard from Onesimus, or even from Philemon himself. See, the name Onesimus means “Useful.” His parents probably gave it to him in a fit of optimism, imagining the contributions their son might make to society. It seems to have become sort of a joke for Philemon; it probably got laughs all around whenever Philemon “accidentally” called his slave “Useless.”
    In any case, buried in this obscure little letter is this sentence: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” I can only imagine how Onesimus must have felt if he read that sentence. That he, a runaway slave, worth only the work that he could do and now not even worth that, could be useful. Hard for him to imagine, I’m sure, but thrilling to hear.
    Isn’t that what the gospel’s about though, when you get right down to it? God making the useless useful? Think of Jesus making useless legs strong enough to support weight and useless eyes able to see, or a useless, cheating tax collector into a philanthropist. Think of him making a woman useless for everything but carrying water and gratifying her partner, thrown away by five husbands, into an evangelist. Or a useless, naked lunatic, possessed by a demon, into a witness for the power of God.
    Somehow, I don’t think human society hasn’t gotten any better at making people feel useful.
    The poor and homeless live on the margins of our society, useless and overlooked except when we see them in our neighborhood, or holding up “Will Work for Food” signs at intersections. Immigrants to our country are often treated as useless by those of us who have been here a few generations – except to do the jobs we don’t want to do, for wages we wouldn’t dream of accepting. And those with mental illness, or with addictions; we relegate them to the background, assuming that they can’t make much of a contribution to the greater good. Useless, for all practical purposes.
    Or check in with many of our schools, and see how classmates and teachers alike treat students who are a little slower, or who learn differently, or who aren’t quite as talented or good-looking as the other kids. The word “useless” might not be spoken, but don’t imagine that those kids don’t get the message loud and clear. Or look at the way we treat our elderly: so impatient with their frailties that we arrange them out of the way, as people who have outlived their usefulness.
    Jesus doesn’t see it that way. If somehow or another you’ve gotten the message that you don’t matter, that you’re not useful, then you need to know that the Lord maintains a dissenting opinion. Beyond the talents and opportunities you have, beyond what you may or may not be able to do, you are useful. Even if no one else sees it, he does. Even if you can’t see it yourself, he can. He loves you deeply and knows that if you can just experience that love for yourself, the real you will emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis. He went to a cross for you, in fact, as proof that however useless you might have been to the people around you, you are useful to him.
    All that’s left is the response. Something in us rightfully resists letting someone else be our master. But when that Master wants nothing more than for you to be what he made you to be, why fight it?
    You’re irreplaceable to him. Go knock on his door and let him welcome you home.
    To him, it won’t be the same without you.

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