Today’s gospel from Luke disturbs our sensibilities because of its suppositions about slavery. Jesus refers to slavery as an accepted institution of society and does not speak against it. Moreover, he assumes that many of his listeners themselves have slaves and that they know how to treat them. You would insist, he says, that your slave finish serving you with evening food and drink, even after a long day in the field, before time off for his or her own dinner. Jesus approves the rather harsh and uncompromising treatment of slaves and uses that to make his point about the behavior he expects from the disciples.
This passage has not always been disturbing. It was one of the principal defenses of slavery in Christianity down to the 1860s in the United States. For much of Christian history, slavery did not need to be defended at all because everyone took it for granted. Jesus’ own statement needs to be understood in terms of the social situation of the ancient world, in which slavery was indeed an accepted practice. People could become slaves by being on the losing side in a war, by being sold into slavery by their parents, or by selling themselves into slavery because they otherwise lacked the means to take care of themselves. The children of slaves were slaves. The economies of most Mediterranean societies required slave labor. Much slave labor was menial and some was sexually abusive, but sometimes slaves rose to positions of great responsibility. Slavery in the ancient world did not have especially racial or ethnic connotations except in cases where the enslaved losers in a war were racially or ethnically different from the winners. The Hebrew Bible laid down some rules for the humane treatment of slaves but did not condemn the practice. St. Paul encouraged slaves to be obedient to their masters and in one instance persuaded a run-away slave to return to his master and his master to receive him back as a Christian, though still a slave. He did not suggest abolishing slavery or even that individual Christians should free their slaves.
While it was clear in the ancient world that many slaves were intelligent and responsible, there was also the belief that some people are “natural slaves,” that is, people in need of others to watch out for them while they do work within a limited sphere. Aristotle, for instance, believed that all women are by nature “natural slaves” and need men to take care of them, although they can manage a household. Without using slavery language for women, St. Paul believed that they needed to be subordinated to and taken care of by men, despite the plain evidence before his eyes that some women were paramount leaders in their congregations.
One part of Hellenistic and Roman culture that seems strange to us is the extent to which all human relations were seen in terms of dominance and submission. Relations among social classes were defined in terms of dominance and submission, and the relations between slave-owners and slaves were part of this. Sexual relations could not be conceived as equal, only as a matter of domination and submission. The flip side of the dominance and submission theme in the ancient Greco-Roman world was that everyone except the emperor was supposed to be on the look-out for who his or her lord or master is so as to be of service.
In our time almost no one would believe slavery to be morally tolerable, except perhaps in Africa where it is still practiced in some places. In our time, we are somewhat divided about whether men should dominate women. Most secular Western societies have adopted equal women’s rights, and mainline religions have gone along with that. Many evangelical Protestants, however, as well as Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, hold to the biblical injunctions to keep women in subordinate roles to men.
How should Christians respond to biblical assumptions about cultural matters that are in direct contradiction to what we have come to believe, for good reason, to be the moral course? We should look very carefully at the moral distance between the ancient world and our own. Just as we would not accept ancient science over against our own, so we should not accept ancient social customs regarding slavery or gender relations when we have come to know better. The Bible’s deep principle of the equality of all people as children of God contradicts many of the social customs that the Bible accepted uncritically, even if biblical writers had not drawn out that implication. Jesus’ own practice of treating women with great respect and near equality stood in contrast to the social expectations of his time. The implication of equal dignity for all persons has been drawn out abundantly in the last four centuries and we now believe in human rights; in Christian societies, that belief comes from the biblical principles of love and equality. We need not hold it against the prophets, Paul, or Jesus, that they failed to see the full social implications of the claim that God loves all people as equally divine children and that relations among people should be those of mutual love, to which slavery is a contradiction.
Nevertheless, though our sensibilities are rightly disturbed by Jesus’ positive use of slavery to make a point, we should still attempt to see the point he was making. His point was not about the institution of slavery at all. It was about duty to God that applies to everyone. Just as the ancient world believed that slaves owed perfect obedience to their masters and should not be rewarded extra for merely doing their duty, so everyone should be obedient to God and not get extra credit for being so. We do not enter life on a morally neutral playing field, where opportunities await for doing good that we can take up if we want some special reward, but that we can also simply ignore if we don’t want the reward. No. We are already defined by our obligations. To accept and engage those obligations is simply what is expected of us.
Jesus’ point in this analogy with slavery was to attack spiritual materialism. In his influential book, Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, the Tibetan Buddhist theologian and missionary to America, Chogyam Trungpa, defined spiritual materialism as the ego’s use of religion to enhance its own gratification. In Buddhist culture this often meant attaining spiritual powers so that others would look up to you. In Western and many third-world cultures a great many people think they should be religious and moral only for the sake of getting to Heaven, a place of infinite rewards. Good Christians are also prone to a kind of spiritual materialism that sees holiness as an ultimate ego gratification. Jesus’ point was that we should do our duty to God and neighbors just because it is our duty. The moral issues of our watch define us, and how we do our duty defines our moral worth, set in the context of God’s forgiveness and mercy. The proper motive for religious practice should be for its own sake, not for the sake of some reward.
Our proper relation to God, as you know, is very complicated, consisting in part of awe and reverence for the glory of the Creator, in part of gratitude for our lives and the bounty of creation, in part of confession of our sins and grateful reception of divine forgiveness, and in part of learning to love God as our Ultimate Beloved even though God gives us unfair lives, unlovely neighbors, pain, and death. Relations with our neighbors are partial versions of our proper relation to the Ultimate Ground of our Being. This complex religious life of holiness is extremely difficult, but it is not for the sake of anything except itself. To learn to live in holy awe, gratitude, repentance, and love collectively is the end and goal of life. Should some mastery of awe, gratitude, repentance, and love win respect from our neighbors or an afterlife in heaven is wholly beside the point, and the ego-lure of respect or heaven is likely to corrupt the true Christian path to which we are ordered. Jesus said, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
Jesus, of course, was the “worthless” slave, as Paul said in Philippians 2, whose humility so perfected his relation with God that all of us who follow him into the duty of that slavery can come to holy awe, ultimate gratitude, repentant redemption, and the love that perfects human nature. I invite you to the table of Jesus where the slaves come for nourishment so that they can do their whole duty to God and neighbor. Come to the table where God’s glory suffuses humble food, and be in awe. Come to the table where Christ’s presence incarnates God in creation, and be filled with gratitude. Come to the table with confession in your heart to receive the blessed grace of forgiveness, and be empowered to live the unstoppable life of redeemed sinners. Come to the table where the true host is your beloved, and love God as a perfect lover. Come.