A word to the slaves

Easter 4        May 7, 2017

1 Peter 2:19-25

I know this is Good Shepherd Sunday, and I’m supposed to be talking about Jesus the Good Shepherd and us his sheep.  But you can’t always do what you’re supposed to.  In the Bible study this week it was the second reading that we got caught on, as you might get caught on a bramble, and we actually never got to the gospel reading about the Good Shepherd.  

As one person in the group observed: sometimes we read passages in church that are so disturbing, we really shouldn’t read them unless we preach on them.  That happens from time to time, doesn’t it: because we follow the lectionary, we read passages from all over the Bible, not just the familiar or comfortable ones, and sometimes we read something that is so foreign to our culture, even offensive to our way of thinking, that it’s hard to just say “the word of the Lord” and leave it at that.  You have to wonder, what would a new person make of it, someone who has just put their big toe back into church after years away, and then they hear something disturbing read and we all just say “Thanks be to God” like this is perfectly normal.  Sometimes the best we can hope for is that no one is really listening, and a reading just drones by us.  But that’s not very satisfactory, is it?

So it is with today’s reading. “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”  Hard to imagine a sentiment more offensive to our modern sensibilities.  Because that certainly sounds like accepting unjust and evil social structures like slavery, and counselling that the victims should embrace their suffering as the will of God.  Wow.

Of course the word “slave” sets us off.  Some translations use the word “servant”, which sounds much better: it might even give us romantic ideas of Downton Abbey.  That perhaps was the reality for many ancient slaves: service in a benevolent rich household that looked after its own. But they were nonetheless slaves: they were the property of their owners, without civil rights of their own, and could be beaten, raped, or even killed at the owner’s whim.

On the other hand, when we hear the word “slave” we think Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that is not quite the situation of ancient slaves either. The difference is racism.  Slaves in the English-American slave system – and yes, it happened here too – were separated from the rest of society by a system of racist belief that held that they were subhuman.  They had no hope of any other life for themselves or their children; they were kept uneducated, treated more like farm animals than people. In the ancient world, there was no clear racial divide: slaves were clearly fully human, even if considered foreign or of a lower class. They were sometimes highly educated: teachers and physicians were often slaves. And they could hope to obtain their freedom, which gave them full civil rights.

The fact remains, the Bible is disappointing to us on the question of slavery.  We have come (rightly) to see it as so completely evil, that we would expect the Bible to come out clearly and unambiguously against it.  But it doesn’t; and indeed many passages, like this one, seem to consider slavery maybe not a good thing, but simply part of the way things are that remained unquestioned. The Old Testament law set out rules for the humane treatment of slaves, including that it should only be for a limited time.  The New Testament church included slaves, and insisted on their full equality as children of God within the church – but it did not insist that slavery should be abolished.

It is hard for us to imagine today, but at the time of the great struggle to end slavery in the first half of the 1800s, abolitionists had an uphill battle arguing that slavery was unacceptable to Christians. The Bible was too ambiguous; indeed slave-holding Christians could and did argue that the Bible supported slavery as part of God’s order.  It was only over time that we learned to read beyond the literal level, and recognize that the spirit of Jewish-Christian faith, with its celebration of the dignity and worth of every human being, made slavery impossible.

Now I have a confession to make.  The lectionary reading for today actually omits the first verse, presumable because the question of slavery is so offensive to us. But does that really make the passage easier for us to swallow? The direction of the passage is still the same: it is urging us to accept unjust suffering as something we are called to as Christians. Without the first line, the advice becomes general, applying to all situations.  Is this really the advice that the church would give to a woman in an abusive relationship, for example? Far too often it has been.  Context is important in the Bible – that is why I think it is more honest to include the first verse, and remember that these words are addressed to specific people – slaves.

You’ve probably heard the line that the Bible is God’s love letter to us.  It’s a beautiful thought, and it is true on one level; but when we get down to specifics, it doesn’t directly apply, and it can lead us astray. Reading today’s passage, we might think, that’s an odd sort of love letter.  The problem is, the Bible wasn’t written to us.  Oh, on some higher theological level it is, otherwise we wouldn’t waste our time reading it.  But on the literal level, every passage was written in a specific time to specific people.  We are not the primary addressees of this letter, ours is not the name on the envelope; before we hear the Bible talking to us (and it does), we are overhearing it talking to someone else. Until we understand who it is talking to in the first instance, and what it is saying to them in their context, we will be very vague about what it might be saying to us.

So, with this reading, we need to know that these words of advice are being addressed to slaves.  Not any or all slaves, but specifically the slaves who have joined the young Christian movement, who have come to accept the gospel of Christ’s love and embark upon a new life.  First Peter is written to new Christians, and it speaks of the new identity we receive in baptism – that’s why we read it in Easter season.  Earlier in the chapter, just before this passage, we read:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Now, can you imagine what these words would have sounded like to a slave?  To someone who was the property of another, without civil rights – to hear that you have an infinite dignity and worth in the eyes of God? It was a gospel that gave you your humanity back, a dignity that no master could take away from you.

Sometimes the head of a household would be baptised, and the whole household along with him.  In this case, however, it would appear that these slaves have come to faith on their own.  Their masters are not Christians; and indeed they are not pleased that their slaves have been getting these radical ideas at the church, and may be determined to beat them out of them.
That is the specific context of this passage, and we need to understand this to make sense of it.  That is why it does not denounce slavery: it is not talking to us, who are looking for a passionate denunciation of injustice; nor is it talking to the owners, who could do something about slavery.  It is talking to the slaves who are stuck with the reality, and don’t need to be told that it stinks. 

What choices do they have? They could fight back, and get themselves killed.  Or they could give in and give up their faith, let go of this newfound sense of dignity and worth, let themselves be crushed into beasts of burden without a mind of their own.  Or they will suffer.  But they will be suffering for a purpose, suffering for their right to believe in their own worth in an unjust situation.  And this suffering – not suffering in general, certainly not injustice itself – but the suffering that comes from standing for dignity and worth, suffering accepted with grace and hope and forgiveness: well this kind of suffering has a holiness all of its own.  It can bring us alongside Christ, letting us share in what he suffered for the healing and redemption of the world.

In the case of slavery – by enduring this tension, holding onto their faith in the dignity and worth of every human life even in the midst of the unjust reality of slavery, Christians slowly began to transform attitudes, and slavery began to wither away in the Roman empire.

So that is what this difficult passage is saying to those it is talking to – that is the conversation we are overhearing. When we have understood that, we ask ourselves, what is it saying to us?
Since the Bible is not speaking directly to us, we can’t just directly apply what it is saying.  If we are suffering, perhaps the first question is whether we can change our situation or end our suffering.  That is a luxury the slaves did not have, but we may.  The second question may be, are we suffering merely because of the callousness and selfishness of others, or does our suffering have a purpose – does it take a stand for our own dignity and worth, or those of others?  And thirdly, does it have a role to play in healing and reconciling a difficult situation?  If that is the case, then it may be that this passage has something profound to say to us, something that puts our suffering in the context of God’s redemptive work in this world.
This may sound complicated, and I suppose it is.  But it can be as everyday as the decision whether to swallow an insult or injury, or confront the person who has hurt you; whether to forgive someone who has wronged you, and what that forgiveness might look like.  These are difficult questions, and when they come up for us, they demand lots of thought, and prayer, and maybe seeking the advice of a good friend.  Our faith can certainly inform us and help us in working through these kind of questions; but the one thing it will not do is give us a one size fits all answer in words that were addressed to people in a very different situation than ours.

It has been our tradition as Anglicans (though not for very long, actually) to conclude each reading with the phrase: “The Word of the Lord.”  While that is true in a very important theological sense, the phrase can be misleading: it can suggest that God is speaking every word in the Bible directly to us.  But that, as we have just seen, is not true: these words were addressed to others in another time and place.  God does speak to us through Scripture; if we didn’t believe that we wouldn’t bother to read it in church.  But God speaks in a more indirect way: as we overhear these words addressed to others, we hear in unexpected ways how these words intersect our present reality. “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church” is a phrase that better capture the way in which God speaks to us.

What is the Spirit saying to the church in this passage?  Maybe not that we should submit unquestioningly to any kind of abuse that comes our way.  But it does remind us that we are brothers and sisters of these ancient slaves; and of those in every age who suffer mistreatment.  It calls us to resist cruelty and injustice in all its forms, and to stand up for that vision of human dignity and worth at the heart of the gospel.  And it reminds us that that resistance is not always without cost; and that they are kinds of suffering that have a holiness of their own, as they are of a piece with the sufferings of Christ.  It seems the Spirit can have quite a bit to say to us even in such an obscure passage, if we but take the time to listen.






Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.