“The Lord has blessed this journey. I felt it when we left and, now, we will be arriving about an hour before the evening service. That, I am sure is proof.”
Onesimus smiled. His escort and friend, Tychicus, was exuberant. The man had been unable to keep silent ever since they left Ephesus. He talked on and on, about the weather, the good time they had made, and even the wonderful quality of the food on the ship, all because, according to Tychicus, the Lord had blessed their journey.
They had left the barge and were now walking through Colossae toward Philemon’s house. Good thing Tychicus wanted to talk constantly. Because Onesimus had no desire to speak. The Lord may have blessed the journey, but that did not mean he would be accepted, even with reservations, back into the house. As Tychicus talked, Onesimus pondered his situation. They had been fortunate in that no one had asked questions about who they were or where they were going. The plan, should that happen, was to tell as much of the truth as was needed. But Tychicus did have proof that he was taking Onesimus back to Philemon, should it be necessary to prove anything.
Even then, the soldiers would most likely not let Tychicus continue on his own, but would insist that one of them accompany Onesimus to Colossae. That this drastic measure had been avoided was the real reason for Tychicus to be happy.
Onesimus checked his jacket for the letter sewn into the lining. His friend, Paul, had written it to assist in getting things straight. However, Onesimus was not certain that his master would see things as Paul saw them. One problem that he and Tychicus had not solved was what they would do if he were recognized before the matter could be settled. And this walk from the docks to Philemon’s house was the most dangerous part of the journey. Anyone might recognize him.
Onesimus woke from his deep thoughts. All was silent. Tychicus was very quiet. Ahead of them were two Roman soldiers. They seemed to be checking everyone who walked past. Tychicus began a simple prayer. When they were maybe fifty yards from the soldiers, the soldiers turned their backs and started walking in front of Onesimus and Tychicus. Almost as if they were the military escort ahead of the royal party.
Tychicus slowed their pace and the soldiers moved on ahead. Soon they were out of earshot. And Tychicus began to speak again; only this time in a whisper. “We will be at the gate soon. Is there some place in the front garden where you can wait unnoticed? I keep thinking that it would not be good for you to just show up unannounced.”
Onesimus nodded, thinking. He said, also in a whisper, “The gatehouse is on the right as we enter. But there’s a garden house on the left. There used to be a bench outside the door to the garden house. You don’t notice it from the path. And the gardener is not likely to be there just before the service. I can wait there.”
Tychicus nodded. The road curved to the right and the gate to Philemon’s house was just ahead, on the left. As they approached, the gatekeeper called a greeting. Fortunately, the gatekeeper was not known to Onesimus. They returned the greeting. When they told the gatekeeper they were emissaries from Paul, the man praised God. Then he turned back to his station and the two of them started down the path.
As soon as the gatekeeper was out of sight, they stepped off the path, carefully avoiding the flowers, and walked over to the bench by the garden house door. Onesimus took out his knife and cut the false hem in his jacket, pulled out the letter and gave it to Tychicus.
“Probably best if I don’t make my business know to them until after the service. So you may sit here a while.” Tychicus was all smiles, but Onesimus could detect the deep concern hidden behind the smiles.
“I’ll be fine. The Lord has got us this far. He will see it through. Don’t worry. It will go well. Don’t fret through the worship. Worship the Lord in joy with our brothers and sisters.” Onesimus grinned. The whole journey Tychicus had been reassuring him. Now he was reassuring Tychicus. Then, thinking of the worship service, he asked, “If it’s possible, ask the Celebrating Presbyter to hold back a portion for me.”
Tychicus smiled. “If that gatekeeper blabs that we come from Paul, I might be celebrating. Now that would be awkward!”
Onesimus hugged him, saying, “May the Lord be with you.”
Tychicus responded, “And, Onesimus, may he also be with you.”
Then Tychicus turned back to the path and headed toward the house entrance. The way Tychicus had said his name made him remember his original name. He had not thought about it for quite some time, but his Celtic name was Ollathir. Then, thinking about that, he remembered the day he was captured by the Romans and enslaved.
The crazy thoughts ran through his head like chattering squirrels. The bad news: they had lost the battle and the war. The worse news: in addition to the insult of being captured, he was judged either too small or too young or both. So he would not be enlisted in the Roman army. Instead, he was to be sold as a slave.
The slavers knew their job all too well. Ollathir had tried to find a way to escape. But they had thought of everything. A true bard, he thought, would know how to escape. But he was just a Mabinogi, a bard in training. One day he would be a priest, or Druid. One day? Not now. His people were now sharing the fate of the Gauls. Julius Caesar had defeated Vercingetorix in Gaul and hauled him to Rome as a trophy. That was a hundred years ago, but it still burned in the memories of the Celtic people. And now Suetonius Paulinus had destroyed the Druids in Mona. These Romans were amazing soldiers. From what he could tell, they knew little except war. But they knew war exceedingly well.
They were headed, so far as he knew, to Gaul. As he marched south, Ollathir felt the shame of his people. They had been beaten by uncouth savages, men without true manners or culture. And these men of war would not even let them be slaves in their own land, but they forced them into slavery in unknown lands.
Ollathir was proud of one thing: they had hurt the Romans severely. The Romans might have won, but it was a very costly win. And he was alive. He was marching toward the sea and Gaul. He prayed a prayer of thanks to Llew, his god. How Llew intended to make this slavery useful training for him was uncertain. But he began to look for opportunities to learn. For that was his job: to learn. That was the job of every Mabinogi. For he would still become a priest, some how, some way. And a Druid priest was always learning. So he would always seek to learn.
Looking around, seeing the despair on the faces of his fellow slaves, Ollathir wondered how he could help. His one true skill was singing. But he had no harp. Still, he could start singing and bring a bit of joy to those around him.
At first the Romans tried to make him stop singing. But soon they realized that it helped them, because it made their captives happier. One of the guards even tried to learn a few of the songs. And in that endeavor, Ollathir learned Latin. So the journey south was filled with singing and learning. A much less horrid journey than it might have been.
The sea was a great surprise. He had never seen the sea. And it did prove what his teachers had said: the world was round. He could see the way the ships disappeared and, when they set sail, the way the land sank beneath the horizon. He climbed up the main mast to watch for Gaul to rise up from under the sea and was rewarded with that vision, also.
Crossing the water to Gaul was exciting. He had never been on a ship, so this was another opportunity to learn. The sailors did not mind teaching him how the wind and the sails worked. He was quick to grasp the details. It was a short, stimulating voyage, but he did not learn very much about sailing.
Gaul had been the center of Celtic culture. While it had been overrun with Romans, it was still a pretty place. Gaul was also rather large. There were lots of vineyards, so there was also much wine. Ollathir was not impressed with the beverage made from grapes. He could brew an ale that was stronger and much less sweet.
It would take a little more than three weeks to reach Lugdunum. And it would be in Lugdunum that their fate would be decided. So the captives settled into a routine. Ollathir led the singing while they marched. Since the captives were forced to do all the labor, they cooked Celtic style and ate their meals in Celtic fashion. The Romans did not like this, but could not stop them without doing the work themselves.
Once, during a dispute between the Romans and the captives, Ollathir took the guard who was learning the Celtic songs aside and said, “I could sing very slow songs. Then we march very slowly.” He paused a moment and then offered, “We might march very slowly so that nothing can harm us. You would not want to try to sell damaged goods?” He smiled at the guard, who got the message. And the Romans ate Celtic food.
When they reached Lugdunum they had to wait for over a week for someone to decide what they were to do. Ollathir used the time to scavenge for the materials to make a harp. He had been very fortunate to find some properly cured oak. Unfortunately, the Romans did not know how to make the proper wire for stringing a harp, so he used gut, just like they did. The camp’s wheelwright let him make use of a few tools and shortly he had a passable harp. He would have loved to stay in the city named for his god, Llew. One of his guards even took him to a shrine that honored Llew. But even in the city named for him, Llew seemed unable to answer his prayers. Eventually they boarded a barge and floated down the Rhone to the port of Massilia. It was as they approached Valentia that he saw the mountains. Even though they were more like hills, his Roman friend told him about the real mountains. He could not imagine that the land would tower up like that. He lived in the mountains of western Britain. But, if the Romans were to be believed, they were just hills compared to the mountains that were east of them.
They were in Massilia two days, then a small ship took them to Rome. This was a much longer voyage than crossing the Sea to Gaul. It would take a week, but the winds were with them and the sea was relatively calm. He was a little seasick only for the first day, but remembering the mountains, he was glad to trade a little nausea for Winter in the Alps. He spent the week learning how to sail. And, with his new harp, he led the singing. One of his new guards taught him some Roman songs. That helped increase the comradery and made for a more pleasant voyage.
More important, although he did not know this at the time, was his interest in sailing. Because he wanted to learn how to sail, he was given the privilege of working on deck and did not have to man the oars below the main deck. As a result, he was standing on the deck as they entered the river and sailed into the Port of Rome.
The size of the city was mind-boggling. He could not comprehend how many buildings there were, nor how many people must live in this place. Nor could he comprehend why anyone would want to. It was like a thousand villages shoved up against each other. They had been greeted with the smell long before they saw the city; they had heard it too. There was a low rumble, like a soft moan that rose up from the conglomeration. And rising with that moan was a stench.
He had smelled it in Lugdunum and Massilia, but this was overpowering. He soon realized it was the river that stank. Later he would learn about the sewers. They might remove waste from the city, but it ended up in the river.
As he stared at the city, hearing the low moan and smelling the river, he was truly homesick for the first time. How he longed for the forests and moors and rainy winds of Britain.
The slavers tied them together and marched them through the streets in a victory parade. It was fascinating to see how the citizens praised and cheered the soldiers, especially the generals. The defeated were jeered. The mockery was supposed to be humiliating. But he knew he would be sold as a slave. That was not as humiliating as having your head chopped off and set on the point of a spear to be displayed for all to see. It would be a while before he understood that the point was not to humiliate the captives. Over time, he would learn that everything the Romans did was practical. The Roman motive was function. That was their true god.
Suddenly he was shoved out on a platform and realized he was being sold. A slaver asked him what skills he had. He tried to answer, but could only say he had not finished his education. It seemed not to matter. The slaver said something in the Roman tongue and there was much amusement. He had learned some Latin, but he did not comprehend the slang. He did gather that it was a very derogatory word. When the bidding was over he found himself in the company of several of his companions, all headed to the docks.
Someone told him they were going to a place called “Ephesus” wherever that was. It made him feel very homesick as he realized he would never see his homeland again. The voyage to Ephesus took two weeks. The first few days of the journey were rough seas, rain and erratic winds. Even so, he did not get seasick anymore. Then the days became relatively calm, with a good breeze. His skill at sailing improved greatly; he was almost one of the crew. He tried to compose a song, but was unable to finish the song before they reached Ephesus.
Instead of being sold at auction, Ollathir and six other slaves were quickly loaded on a wagon and carried south, in much haste, to a river where they boarded a barge. Ollathir did not know why, but for some reason they were taken upriver to Laodicea first, and then he and two others went on to Colossae. It was in Colossae that he was sold.
Apparently, he brought a good price. Which meant that he would have a hard time finding the money to buy his freedom. The man who bought him was named Philemon. But that was all he could decipher from the odd language of this new land. He learned later that it was part of the Roman Empire, but the language was Greek. His new owner spoke little Latin and struggled to communicate with Ollathir. However, he did manage to ask for his new slave’s name. He looked shocked when Ollathir ( probably pronounced “oo-thl-a-thir” ) pronounced his name. The new master’s tongue stumbled on the odd accents of the name. He tried again and then said slowly in the Roman tongue, “Well I hope you will be useful and I will name you that: you shall be “Onesimus.”
So the first thing his new master did was to change his name. That did not seem to him a good thing. And, indeed, his new life was very difficult. Communication was a problem, even though he did learn some of the basics of the Greek language rather quickly. Cultural differences proved to be an even bigger problem. His new master was not “Greek” but “Jewish”. His wife was Greek. So Ollathir had to learn both the Greek culture and the Jewish culture. It could get very confusing. He tried hard to please his new master, but always seemed to disappoint the man.
His first big disaster was in making pottery. His master needed some drinking cups. The overseer showed Onesimus (hard to get used to that name) the potter’s wheel. Onesimus nodded that he understood. The overseer showed him a cup. Onesimus nodded again. Then he marked “XII” in the clay. Onesimus said ‘Twelve” in Greek. The man nodded. Although he was not a highly skilled potter, he could make some fine plates and cups. He made a dozen cups exactly like those he had made in Britain. Yet, when Philemon saw the cups, he was quite unhappy. Later, he would understand that his work was of high quality, but the design of the cups and the images he put on the vessels were offensive. His Celtic art was not appreciated by his Jewish master. The same thing happened in the kitchen. His flavorings were not to the taste of his new master. And when he brewed some ale, they were horrified. Fermented grain was the inferior beverage of barbarians. They drank only wine.
Even his skill with the harp was faulty. They did not like his Celtic harmonies. So he tried the song the Roman soldier had taught him, only to have everyone get offended. A fellow slave finally told him that the words had a double meaning and it was actually a very lewd song. And then Ollathir was embarrassed, but it was too late.
The religions of the Greeks and his new master were also a source of confusion. The Greeks and Romans in Colossae tried to equate their gods to his. They could not understand that his gods were much different from the ones they worshiped. To confuse matters further, Philemon was Jewish. He said there was only one deity, a god whose name was unspeakable.
One day, in the course of his duties, Philemon said something that was a revelation to Ollathir. He had never understood why some people made decisions that were bad for the community; that is, why someone might steal or harm another. His Druid tutors had never explained this properly.
So, when Philemon said something about ‘Sin’, Ollathir did not understand him at all. Later, that evening, Philemon took him aside and explained how Adam and Eve had committed the first sin. He explained the concept of Original Sin. For Ollathir this was wonderful enlightenment. This story of Original Sin explained much of human behavior. He was fascinated and wanted to know more.
The next day Philemon took a few minutes to talk to him about his God. Philemon told his slave that God had revealed his name to be “I Am.” To his Celtic mind this made a lot of sense.
This gave Ollathir much to ponder. The idea of Original Sin and why people do bad things changed his whole world view. It also made sense that there was only one God. His Celtic gods almost always seemed to be manifestations of one deity. Llew and The Dagda worked in harmony. He often felt that praying to one was praying to all the gods. So, a few days later, he asked Philemon about this Jewish God.
“It is as I said, there is only one deity. His name is ‘I Am’. He created the world and all that is in it.” Philemon seemed to not understand Ollathir’s questions.
“Yes,” replied Ollathir, “but you said that the first people sinned. And you implied that I Am did something about it. But I don’t see that anything was done. Lots of people still sin. Most don’t know who I Am is.”
Philemon looked at his slave in wonder. None of the Greeks had ever asked him about this. So Philemon began to tell Ollathir about Jesus. But when Philemon said that Jesus had risen from the dead, Ollathir was incredulous. And when Philemon told him about meeting a man who had seen the risen Jesus, Ollathir was shocked.
To make things worse, the overseer complained to Philemon that Onesimus was spending too much time talking to Philemon about religion and not working. For many days he meditated on these things and prayed to Llew. But it did not help him do the tasks he was assigned in a way that pleased his master.
Philemon kept trying to find something Onesimus could do well. He tried to tell them that he was trained to learn all things, to know all things but not to master any one thing. Overall, he felt useless. He was, from birth, destined to be a bard or a priest, which explained his name; “Ollathir” meant “All-Father”, one of the names of The Dagda, the chief god. So he had been trained to think; to follow orders only after he had considered them carefully. New ideas were always encouraged. Not so in this new land. A slave was expected to do it as it had always been done. There was no expectation of improvement. And no one appreciated his improvements. Worst was when he developed a better way to clean the stables, but the stable master was irate and marched him back to Philemon, complaining. His name might be ‘Onesimus’ but he was still useless to his master.
The stable master said his piece and left. Philemon stood there, saying nothing, but staring into space. After a few minutes he looked at his slave and, in a rather angry tone, said, “I don’t know what to do with you. You are very smart but you act so foolish. I can’t get a good price for you without lying, which I will not do. You are young and virile. I have a friend who could use you as a prostitute. Maybe that would be suitable? Go back to the stable master, apologize, and do it right.”
He did obey his master. But it was the last time. He decided to find his way back to Britain. That evening a visitor, a Jewish Rabbi, arrived. Ollathir took a few coins and escaped while everyone was listening to the Rabbi.
Escape was easy. Because he was a devout Jew, Philemon did not tattoo his slaves. Colossae was small enough that he could not stay in town. So, if Ollathir could find a quick way out of Colossae, he would be free. He went down to the docks, looking for an idea. And he found one. A barge was moored to the pier and Ollathir watched as some men unloaded it. Nearby, a man was negotiating the shipping charge for his grain. And soon the grain was loaded. That’s when Ollathir quietly slipped aboard and crawled under one of the tarps that covered the grain.
The trip downstream was quiet. The only people on the barge were the grain merchant and the barge owner. When they reached the port, both men went ashore. One to find a buyer for the grain and the other to hire a crew to unload it. He took a chance and waited for the barge owner to return. He was hired to help unload the grain. From the other laborers he learned of a ship headed to Rome that was hiring sailors.
He was honest about his skills; he did not want to be put ashore in a remote place. His tongue got him the job. And they were blessed with good weather all the way to Rome. He wanted to thank Llew but it seemed that Llew just wasn’t around. Instead, he kept thinking about this solitary deity that Philemon worshiped. Some deity seemed to be giving him assistance, but he was not sure about it. Anyway, he was in Rome. Now he had to work out how to get to Britain. And that was when his apparent good fortune departed.
His wages from the ship were meager, but enough to last a few days. So he wandered around Rome, trying to learn about his enemy. One fascinating thing about Rome was the size of the buildings.
The insulae or apartment buildings were several stories high; some as much as seven stories. It was incredible. How, he wondered, could they stay erect? His opinion of the Romans began to change. Maybe they were not merely savage brutes who had mastered the art or war. Even so, he recognized that, even with the engineering technology to build great buildings, at their core they were a savage brutal culture who had lost touch with the earth. Why else would they live like this?
Why anyone would want to live in this place was incomprehensible to him. Why live so close together? Even with the sewers many still tossed their sewage into the street. And only the rain would clean it away. But then the breeze would shift slightly and the aroma of garlic cooking in olive oil filled the air. Frequently he could detect the additions of mussels or other seafood, lamb and other meat. And the bread! How wonderful their bread smelled. But then the breeze would switch and he would gag.
As he walked down the street he met a wagon loaded with barrels. As it passed, some of the barrels rolled off and one managed to hit him, breaking his leg. He sat in pain for a while, and then a man walked by, saw him and offered to help. The man’s name was Timothy. Timothy offered to take him to a physician he knew.
Dr. Luke seemed to be a really nice, caring man. Ollathir spent the next several evenings with him because the doctor had splinted his leg and he could not move. They had put him on a couch in the doctor’s front room where, for a week, he had very little to do. Mostly, the doctor talked about his travels with a man named Paul. He said they were servants of another, a man named Jesus. Eventually, when Ollathir figured out that the man they called Jesus was the same as the man Philemon had told him about, Ollathir felt very scared. He was trapped in this house with people who claimed that they served a man who had risen from the dead. What made it worse was his status as a runaway. So, even if he could leave, he could not go to the authorities for help.
Besides all that, he needed the doctor to change his bandages every few days. This was something new to him. He knew to set the broken bone and splint it. Dr. Luke explained why they changed the bandages that held the splints. He used cerate to stiffen the bandages. And changing them helped with gangrene.
Even with their odd belief, the people in the house seemed to be rational people in other ways. And very kind. Timothy showed him how to write in Greek. So most of his days were spent practicing the Greek language.
One evening he began to write down what Dr. Luke was saying. No one seemed to mind, so he continued this for several nights. Then, just as the evening was ending and they were headed to sleep, Timothy walked over and picked up Ollathir’s notes.
“Dr. Luke,” he said, rather excited, “look at this.” He handed the notes to the doctor, who began to scan them.
“Oh my goodness!” The doctor was quite excited, also. “This is amazing. I will show this to Paul.” Then the doctor looked at Ollathir and asked, “You don’t mind, do you?”
Ollathir looked at the man. He had no idea who ‘Paul’ was. And, due to his status, he really had no choice. “No. I just wrote down what I heard you saying.”
The upshot was that Ollathir was to record what Dr. Luke and others had to say about their travels and also to record what was said about Jesus. Then, during the day, he could re-write and organize the notes. Ollathir pondered this and agreed. He had no way to pay the man for the medicine. This could help him with that debt.
But the note-taking made his fear of these people worse. They really did believe that the man, Jesus, had risen from the dead. He also learned about a man named “Paul” who had seen the risen Jesus. He was not surprised that this Paul had been arrested and was in prison.
After a couple of weeks, Timothy came into the room one day with a crutch. Ollathir stood while Timothy marked the crutch for height. Then he looked at the patient and smiled, “Now you can move about. Dr. Luke says you need to move about. He said you can’t just sit on the couch all the time. Healing will be much faster if you move about. I’ll cut the end off and be back shortly.”
Ollathir smiled. He knew all that. But he had not wanted to tell the kindly doctor his job. “Thank you,” was all he dared say.
Using the crutch, he was able to walk around the house. He took it slowly, letting his muscles get used to the exercise. The house was quite nice. There were a number of guest rooms and two main rooms, in addition to the dining parlor. He had been sleeping in the smaller of the two main rooms. As with most Roman houses, this one was built around a courtyard. That night he moved into a small guest room. It was a nice room with access to the courtyard.
The next day another man moved into the smaller main room. It seemed that he was a man of great importance, for a Roman soldier accompanied him. The soldier brought a pang of fear to Ollathir, for his presence was a reminder of his runaway status. Yet he could not leave. And no one knew his status. So he would just be careful.
Two days later he was asked to accompany Timothy to the room where the new guest was staying. As he entered the room, the sight shocked him. The new guest, sitting on a small stool, was chained to the soldier.
“Paul,” Timothy began the introduction, “this is Ollathir, the man we told you about who takes notes of what we say and transcribes them. And Ollathir, this is Paul, the ambassador in chains who met Jesus on the road to Damascus.”
Not knowing Ollathir’s skepticism, Timothy had no idea how much of a shock this would be to the man. Ollathir, stunned at the revelation, turned white and almost lost his balance and fell. Only Timothy’s quick catch kept him upright.
He sat on the couch, dumbfounded. Someone gave him a cup of wine, which he sipped slowly. He had many questions, but could ask none of them, especially with the soldier standing there.
Paul saw the questions in Ollathir’s eyes. And Ollathir saw a kindness in Paul, a grace that revealed a man he could trust with his soul. “You want to ask me something?” Paul queried.
Feeling complete embarrassment, he wanted to say, “No,” and leave. Instead, he spoke haltingly, “You met…Jesus? You saw…him?”
Paul nodded in affirmation, “Yes I did.”
Ollathir really wanted to tell Paul about Philemon, but to do so would reveal his status as a runaway. He glanced quickly at the man chained to Paul. The Roman soldier looked very intimidating. So he simply nodded and said, “I am honored to meet you.”
Dr. Luke came in and announced that the midday meal was ready. He looked at Paul and said, “Demas will be bring your meal to you.” Then he glanced at the soldier, “He will also bring something for you.”
With Paul’s arrival some of the routine changed. They still gathered in the smaller front room after the evening meal, but Ollathir seldom joined them. It was not a large room and there were always visitors. Paul, Timothy, and Demas met with Paul’s evening visitors. Dr. Luke and sometimes Timothy or some others would join Ollathir in the other front room or in Ollathir’s room. In Dr. Luke Ollathir had already found a kindred spirit. The two of them discussed medicine, the Romans, and many other topics. Ollathir still took notes. But Dr. Luke wanted transcription of only the notes on Paul and Jesus.
About a week after Paul arrived another man on house arrest joined them. And this man caused Ollathir much worry. His name was Epaphras. He was from Colossae. Fortunately, he did not seem to recognize Ollathir. But Ollathir was certain the man would know the name ‘Onesimus’. That, combined with the fact that his leg was healing properly, gave Ollathir a good reason to confide in Dr. Luke.
“We thought it was something like that.” Dr. Luke was smiling. “Timothy wondered why you nearly fainted when you met Paul. Someone said you eyed the soldier carefully.”
“Well, that was different.” Ollathir explained his skepticism at what Philemon had told him about Jesus. “So, when Timothy introduced him, it felt like my whole world turned upside down. I still can’t believe a man rose from the dead.”
“Yes. I had a difficult time with that, also.” Dr. Luke said. “But then I met Peter and the other Apostles. They knew him before he was crucified. And they saw the empty tomb. I heard this from their own lips.”
“But now we must decide what we are to do with you.” Dr. Luke said carefully. “Your leg will be healed soon. And we can’t be seen by the Romans as to hiding runaways. We will pray about you. We will pray diligently. But, we won’t do anything before your leg is healed. As a doctor, I can’t permit that.”
After three days of prayer, it was agreed that no decision about him would be made until his leg was healed. However, he should use the name “Onesimus” because his Briton name would seem dishonest to the Romans.
In addition to his duties as a scribe, Onesimus began to assist Dr. Luke with his medical practice, even accompanying Dr. Luke to visit those home-bound.
About the time his leg healed he accepted Jesus as his savior. Timothy baptized him. It was deemed a great occasion and they had a wonderful feast. He stayed with them for three more weeks after his leg healed. Much of that time was spent taking the Eucharist to the home-bound. He usually accompanied Mark, Timothy or a man named Tychicus. He also assisted in setting up the larger front room for worship; helping with the preparation of the bread and wine.
A few days before he was due to leave, Dr. Luke said to him, “Philemon was right to name you Onesimus. You are a most useful person.” He was shocked. No one in the Roman world had said anything like that to him. But he did not feel useful. He felt hollow. Jesus was his savior, true; even so, something was missing from his life.
The day they left for Colossae Paul had given him a token of Love. It was a piece of the shackle that had broken while Paul was wearing it. The soldier had let him keep the broken pieces. And Paul had given a piece to him.
A horse whinnied and brought Onesimus out of his daydream. He looked around at the familiar scene of Philemon’s garden. Dread overcame him. It had been some time since Tychicus had left him to go into Philemon’s house. What if Philemon was sending for the Roman soldiers? Fear shook him. He really wanted to get up and walk down to the docks and find a ship back to Britain. He could bring Christ to Britain. That would truly serve God, wouldn’t it? Yes, go to Britain. Take Jesus to them. He did not need to sit here like a fool. Then he felt the little piece of curved metal that Paul had given to him. He remembered the day Paul gave it to him. It was the day his life changed. He would never forget it.
One Sunday after the Holy Meal, Paul sent for Onesimus. “Here’s someone I would like you to meet.” Paul said to him, as if he were introducing his barber. But the man standing before him was named Peter. Onesimus stared at the man, unashamed of his lack of etiquette.
Peter confirmed to Onesimus all he had heard about Jesus was true. And that was when Onesimus accepted Jesus as his savior. Later, after Peter left, Onesimus met with Paul and confessed his sins, including the details of his sin against Philemon and his hatred of the Romans. After his confession, Paul had talked with him for a while. Then he brought out a piece of a broken shackle.
Paul gave the piece of metal to him and said, “They put a worn out shackle on me. After a while it broke. I picked up the pieces and showed them to the soldier, who let me keep them. I give this piece to you, as a reminder of your slavery to sin and that you are now free to worship God.”
Onesimus was greatly moved by this gift. He thanked Paul. The next day he had a small hole drilled in it and used a leather strap as a chain so that he could wear it around his neck.
Three weeks later he and Tychicus were boarding a ship. But those three weeks were the busiest weeks of his life. On top of all his duties as scribe, medical assistant and home-bound visitor, he spent much time with Dr. Luke and Paul. This was, in part, because Dr. Luke had told Paul that Onesimus had been in training to be a Druid priest back in Britain. In that discussion, Dr. Luke had told Paul about Onesimus’ ideas on the Trinity.
So, every evening for a week, Paul and Onesimus discussed the Trinity. In one really intense discussion Onesimus use the word “manifestation” in describing how the gods he had worshiped were somehow connected. “The people might see each god as a separate person, but the Druid priests see all gods as part of the divine whole.”
Paul looked straight at Onesimus and said, “You know, I’ve never thought of God as a person. Well, I guess I always knew that he was a person. He walked in the garden with Adam and Eve. And Jesus was a person. It’s my training as a Pharisee that sometimes blinds me. But what you are saying makes sense. It is not that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are manifestations, but that they are three persons making up one deity, the divine whole. And to think of the Father as a person makes calling him ‘Daddy’ meaningful. It makes the Holy Spirit real to think of Him as a person. And of course, Jesus was and is a person.”
Onesimus just smiled. He had no idea what to say. Paul kept looking at him. So Onesimus said the only thing he could think of, “Well, we will have to pray about this.”
Paul smiled and agreed. “Thank you for the most useful conversation.”
Philemon entered the garden with Tychicus at his side. Onesimus stood, head bowed. Philemon held up the letter. “You are certainly more trouble than you are worth!” Philemon said, but he was grinning. He stood close to Onesimus, looking him over. “Well, you have fared well in the house of Paul. He sends back a well fed slave.”
Onesimus looked up at Philemon. “I have wronged you. Forgive me.” Then he bowed his head again.
“I forgive you. I was wrong to threaten you with a terrible fate. Will you forgive me for that?”
Onesimus looked up at Philemon, shocked. He stared at the man, then said, “Yes.”
The long silence was broken by Tychicus, who said, “If you are willing, Philemon would like you to return to Rome with me and study under Paul. Then he can lay hands on you and you can return here to lead this church. Is that something you would like to do?”
Onesimus looked back and forth between the two men. “I don’t know. I need to pray about it.” Then he sat down, stunned. He was born to be a priest. And now he was being given the opportunity to serve his new God. It was a miracle.
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Some Notes on “Useless”
This story is a work of fiction. It might be called “historical fiction”…There is absolutely no evidence for anything in this story except for what can be found in Holy Scripture. I used “poetic license” in order to produce what I hope is a good tale. The following explains how I derived my tale.
Outside of the Letter to Philemon, we know almost nothing about Onesimus. There was a man named Onesimus who was the Bishop of Ephesus. Assuming that these two are the same person, I wondered about a slave who became a bishop and the result you just read.
Onesimus and Philemon lived in the same time period as Boadicea, the Iceni Queen who rebelled against the Romans; as well as the time when the Romans destroyed the Druid priests in Mona. We do know that the Romans took their captives to Rome to march in the Roman victory parade. I assume they did the same for the captive British. This is also a decade or so before the Romans destroy Jerusalem and the Temple.
About place names: Lugdunum is the current city of Lyon. It was named by the Celts who lived in Gaul for their god, Llew or Lugh. Massilia is the current city of Marseilles.
I wondered why Philemon would have a slave with the name of “Useful”. There are a couple of historical persons with that name, but it is rare. I rather think Philemon had difficulty pronouncing his new slave’s name.
The name “Ollathir” comes from The Song of Albion by Stephen Lawhead. The double ‘L’ is generally pronounced almost like the ‘thl’ in the English word ‘athlete’. Same for the god, ‘Llew’. That makes pronunciation difficult. In addition, the meaning of the name fits the story very nicely.
Internet research informed me that Rome did have some sewers. It also suggests that the city of Rome could have been between a quarter of a million and a million people. https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/BACD7DF32B0B77609CD6713B8AF88882/S0003598X00085859a.pdf/population_of_ancient_rome.pdf)