Jesus and slavery

Jesus said: A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. Matthew 10:24-25

Perhaps the reason he [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while was so that you might have him back for ever – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. Philemon 15-16

Have you ever felt puzzled that Jesus regularly uses slavery as a way of talking about our relationship with God?

Surely, if he came to usher in the perfect kingdom of God, he ought to have condemned slavery outright! Today, after all, anyone who regards themselves as remotely civilized – Christian or not – sees slavery as an outrage. The idea that anyone has the right to own another human being is simply scandalous.

Yet Jesus and the early church seem to have accepted slavery as a fact of life.

So the question arises: Why? Why didn’t Jesus condemn slavery?

The answer is simple: in the world in which he lived, slavery was a fact of life, and there was no way he or the group of people who became his followers could change that. Plus, of course, the fact that Jesus saw his mission in this world in far, far wider terms – not simply the righting of particular wrongs, important though that is, but the demonstration of a whole new God-centred way of life.

Slavery goes back into the mists of time; there was, apparently, no culture or society that didn’t practice it. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived over three hundred years before Jesus, slaves were not really human beings at all; he refers to them as “living tools” – with all that that implies (use them as you like, chuck them away when you’ve finished with them). The Roman empire in which Jesus lived was massively dependent on it.

To be fair, slavery in the ancient world was often nothing like as horrible and shocking as, say, the transatlantic slave trade so much nearer our own time. For many, slavery was a far better option than living on the streets; you almost became part of the wider family, with a recognised status.

Many slave owners treated their slaves kindly and with affection. Slaves could rise to positions of responsibility in their masters’ affairs – they may have worked as ships’ captains or farm managers. One writer tells us that “the familiarity of slaves towards their owners was a stock theme of comedy”, suggesting that the masters didn’t have it all their own way.

But these factors, of course, could never make slavery right.

And this was something that Jesus and the apostles did recognise. Their approach, in essence, was to undermine slavery from within, rather than pointlessly hit it head-on. Hence the various New Testament passages where Christian slave-owners are instructed to treat their slaves fairly and with dignity. Ephesians 6:9 is a good example.

Especially, we have the intriguing little letter of Paul to Philemon, where Paul pleads with his friend Philemon to show mercy and compassion to his runaway slave Onesimus.

Paul met Onesimus while he was imprisoned, and unashamedly calls him “my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains”. He is unwilling to insist that Philemon should be forgiving to Onesimus – that has to be according to Philemon’s own conscience – but he hopes that he will treat him “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (verse16).

I would like to have seen Philemon’s face when he read those words, wouldn’t you? – suddenly realising that he had, as they say, some serious thinking to do… (I wonder how the story ended – what did Philemon in fact do? I would love to know.)

What can we draw from this history lesson?

First, let’s be alert to the fact that, tragically, slavery is by no means gone from our modern world. It still happens, as we sometimes see on the news; and there might even be shameful examples of it among the people who, say, wash our cars, pick our fruit or lay our patios.

Second, to keep in mind that ultimately all such social distinctions will be done away for ever: in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This great truth should be reflected in the way we conduct all our relationships – no kowtowing to the supposedly high and mighty, no looking down upon the supposedly lowly. Jesus died for everyone; Jesus loves everyone.

Third, to keep doing in every area of life what the early church did regarding slavery: that is, undermining from within what we cannot transform from without.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could change the world! – if we could right all wrongs! But we can’t. But what we can do is (how can I put this?) inject a little bit of Jesus into every situation in which we find ourselves.

Or, as Jesus himself put it, be the yeast that “works its way through the dough” (Matthew 13:33).

Lord Jesus Christ,

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me bring your love.
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord,
And where there’s doubt, true faith in you.

Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope;
Where there is darkness, only light;
And where there’s sadness, ever joy. Amen.

Francis of Assisi (?), c1182-1226

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