(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)
–Philemon 11 (ESV)
I performed for many years with a local Shakespeare company, and one of my favorite roles was Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet. The character is pure testosterone: unbridled, manic, and so, so funny. He kind of starts to take over the play, so much so that Shakespeare is forced to kill him off at the start of Act 3 in order to get on with the tragedy. Indeed, what makes Romeo and Juliet so effective is this turn from a hilarious romantic comedy in Acts 1 & 2 to the profound sorrow of the bloody ending. I would argue that the play turns on one line. Mercutio, a Montague, has just been stabbed by the hotheaded Tybalt of the rival Capulets. Romeo, in a bit of wishful thinking, says, “Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.” But Mercutio replies: “no, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for me to-morrow and you shall find me a grave man” (3.1.96-98). Even while dying, Mercutio can’t resist a pun. But it’s a pun that turns the play. For although the line gets a laugh (or at least a groan), things are about to turn “grave” indeed, in both senses of the word. This is a masterpiece of a pun: totally in character, funny, pathetic, heartbreaking, and kinda corny. I loved saying it every night — it never failed to get a reaction. Puns are like that.
Every study bible you can find will flag Philemon 11, and poke a proverbial elbow into your ribs in the footnotes. “Hey,” these esteemed scholars will whisper, “it’s a joke, you see, because the name Onesimus means ‘useful’. Isn’t that hilarious?” The joke, sadly, is lost in translation. What is interesting to me is less the pun itself, than that Paul decides that here is a good place to drop a joke. Is a pun really the right strategy with a man’s life literally hanging in the balance? Well, yes. Just as in Romeo and Juliet, this well-placed pun turns the entire book. Paul is rather cleverly getting into Philemon’s mentality and showing him how his thinking is wrong. But by softening the blow with a “dad joke”, he manages to take much of the sting out of what could have sounded like a rebuke. He may not be Shakespeare, but Paul is delivering his own masterclass in the power of puns here.
Let’s start at the beginning for a change — “formerly, he was useless to you”. Here, Paul is acknowledging the problem: Onesimus was not a model slave; indeed, he was a thief. I may be reading too much into this, but I do wonder if there’s a little dig in this phrase at Philemon. He, a Christian, has treated Onesimus as an object, to be judged on his usefulness. The Bible clearly teaches that we are not to treat our fellow man in such a utilitarian way. The prophets constantly cried out against Israel for its treatment of the poor and the foreigner (see, e.g., the book of Amos). God makes ample provision for the needy, and the law required the release of slaves and prisoners every 50 years on the Year of Jubilee (see Leviticus 25). In Psalm 15, among the qualities of a person “who shall dwell on your holy hill” (v. 1) is one “who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent” (v. 5). Above all, taking advantage of another’s circumstances for personal profit violates the greatest commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, cf. Leviticus 19:9). Loving someone means not judging them on their “usefulness”, but seeing them as image-bearers of God for whom Christ died.
Paul continues, “but now he is useful to you and to me”. Onesimus has changed. Paul is preaching the gospel with this little pun. He is declaring Onesimus a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) in Christ. The word “useful” here is the Greek euchrēston, which also means “serviceable” and “profitable”. Jesus has made this slave a son, not so that he could sit around, but so that he could do profitable service for the kingdom of God. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). In this sense, we are all to make ourselves “useful”. We are still servants, not of men, but of God. “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21, emphasis mine). Furthermore, if we are useful to God, we will, by default, be useful to our brothers and sisters in Christ. That “and to me” which ends the verse demonstrates that Paul has seen Onesimus doing the work of God already, and it has helped Paul in his apostolic ministry. We are to serve one another, not out of compulsion, but out of love for one another and a desire to build up the Body of Christ. While we should never view others as tools for our use, we ought to be willing to make our gifts and talents available to one another so that the whole Church might benefit (see Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4). If we are on this side of the grave, we have work to do, and there is much to be done; there is no excuse for idleness (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12). So let us make ourselves useful to one another.
I was going to end on that note, but it felt quite serious for a verse that is essentially a joke. For while the work of the Kingdom is serious business, we are not to be solemn and funereal as Christians. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice,” Paul wrote from prison (Philippians 4:4). In a beautiful paradox, we are to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Our Lord, a “man of sorrows”, conveyed the message of the kingdom of God in funny little stories called parables, and as Frederick Buechner reminds us, “with parables and jokes both, if you’ve got to have them explained, don’t bother.” You have been saved from death and given a new life, glorious and eternal, in Jesus Christ. There is nothing you can do to make God love you any more or any less. So lighten up — laugh, tell jokes, throw parties, enjoy a good novel or movie. The work of the kingdom is a work of joy that we get to share together like a good joke is shared. Anyway, I hope this has all proved useful.