His laugh was harsh, his breath foul. He mockingly dangled the key to my chains before my loathing eyes.
“You believed your shambolic rabble could stand against the might of Rome! Face it, boy – you’ve been bettered.”
He sat down and cleaned his sword meticulously on a clump of grass, finally polishing it on his tunic. Gulping from his water carrier, he surveyed me with scorn.
“You’re in the service of the Empire now. We’ll teach you the ways of the civilised world.”
Jerking my chains, he threw me, thrashing, into the blood-soaked ditch. Somewhere, my sister started screaming.
My new master, Philemon, lived many weeks’ march away in Tyre. There, I even lost my name.
Onesimus. Useful. Over my dead body.
I dropped the amphora resentfully. “Forty,” I growled, “And I’ll not carry another.”
The cook glared. “You’ll do what you’re told, lad. Now tidy yourself. Master wants you to serve dinner tonight.”
Fantastic! All I wanted after a long, dusty day of carrying water and gutting chickens was to stand endlessly, watching the diners gorging themselves into obesity. I hoped they’d choke on the stuffed apricots.
There was an unfamiliar guest that evening. I bitterly watched him reclining comfortably. He ate sparingly – didn’t he recognise good food? But he talked! On and on about God and love and freedom … enough to make me vomit!
Once, I caught him observing me in his curious short-sighted manner. I looked pointedly away and began clearing dishes.
I stood fidgeting on the beach, with the rest of the household, watching my master wade into the sea. Silently waiting to receive him was the wiry form of that dinner guest. Many respectable citizens had gathered – magistrates and merchants.
Unsettlingly, that morning my master had – with his own hands – gathered all his idols and sacred objects, and smashed them to powder. I could still taste the chalk.
Apparently he was undergoing some sort of conversion. Frankly, I couldn’t have cared if he became a Vestal Virgin.
After the ceremony, the people stood in a soggy huddle around my master. We slaves milled around, unaccustomed to idleness. I shivered. It was an unnatural day, with no prescribed duties, and an air of uncertainty and fear. Casually, I detached myself from the group and ambled along the shoreline. A little vessel was moored there, tugging at her ropes as if she, too, longed for freedom. I glanced back. The crowd was kneeling. Impetuously I dashed onboard and curled like a fetus behind some baggage.
My bile was rising. The joy of escape was drowning in the misery of the sea. Cautiously, I looked out.
Goddess Feronia, help me now! Watching me were the steel-grey, unflustered eyes of the preacher.
“Onesimus. I thought we might meet again. Tell me, where are you going?”
I was speechless. I knew what I was fleeing. But towards what? Freedom?
Suddenly I saw my life ahead. Always looking behind. Always fearful of a chance meeting. Shuddering whenever I passed a crucified slave. If only I could go back four years!
“My dear child. If you want freedom, I can help. Travel with me. Then you can decide what to do.”
“…and this is my good friend Onesimus.”
The sickening, swaying voyage was over, and we were in Caesarea. Not nearly far enough from Tyre for my liking. But stowaways seldom dictate the itinerary, and Paul was taking instructions from a higher authority.
The local Christians were crowding around Paul as if he were a celebrity. Couldn’t they see he was tired?
Suddenly the crowd parted and the greetings subsided. An old man tottered forward and wordlessly untied Paul’s belt. Fumblingly, he used it to bind his own hands and feet.
“The Spirit says, ‘So will the Jews of Jerusalem bind you, before delivering you to the Gentiles.’”
Paul’s face was grave, and resolute, and radiant.
“My dear son,” Paul lifted his chained hands to my face. Months of imprisonment had made him thinner, greyer, and more earnest than ever. “You understand now, don’t you? We become slaves to what we worship. So you were enslaved - to fear, hatred, false gods, pride and self-will. So was I. But I have been released. In changing my object of worship, I exchanged that slavery for Christ’s slavery. But his slavery means freedom. You do understand?”
He nodded, satisfied.
“I know you do. You too have found freedom. I will give you a letter to take back with you…”
Story fictionalised from Acts 21 and Philemon
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