This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
SLAVE LABOUR AMONGST MIGRANT WORKERS IN UK
Children and Parents
6Children, obey your parents in the Lord,* for this is right.2‘Honour your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise:3‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’
4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.<!– 5 –>
Slaves and Masters
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ;6not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.7Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women,8knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
So, after all this writer’s emphasis on the Christian community as the pioneer of a new united humanity under God, (see recent blogs) here we have him defending the institution of slavery! Doubtless he is not a slave but dares to offer this humiliating advice to slaves: obey your masters from the heart!! We might think so if we looked carelessly at this passage but it deserves closer attention.
They key to it is the reminder at the end that God has no partiality. He does not approve of unjust distinctions and will show justice in the way he deals with people. But surely that does not justify the command to render service to the master as to the Lord. Well perhaps we should remember Jesus advice on how to deal with a powerful enemy: “If he makes you walk two miles carrying his gear, go with him two.” The person whom the soldier tries to humiliate regains his dignity by taking the initiative and doing more than he has been told, challenging the enemy to recognise his humanity. It’s the same here. The slave has no chance of disobedience without severe punishment but he can retain his humanity by ceasing to behave as a slave and acting by his own decision. Will the master be able to treat such a person as a mere slave?
There is no challenge as such to the institution of slavery in the scriptures, although there are rules for the treatment of slaves, and advice to slaves about their behaviour. Jesus’ parables assume the institution of slavery. A huge percentage of labour, including intellectual labour, in the ancient world was carried out by slaves, and societies without slaves may have been unimaginable to many. However within the Christian communities, that is, “in Christ” social distinctions were abolished and all were treated equally, as brothers and sisters.
The advice offered here to slaves for life in society may be seen as liberating and in the spirit of Jesus.
Did the Christian communities not think they could challenge the unjust institutions of society? Certainly they had no liking for the sort of slave rebellions seen in the Roman Empire, but they did challenge in two ways:
1. Constructing an alternative society in their own communities, which trained people in human equality.
2. Refusing legitimacy to the “social pyramid” by withholding respect to Caesar as a God, as was often demanded, which cost them their lives. Rather than challenge every aspect of social injustice they challenged the power which was the linchpin of the system. This second way is not mentioned in Ephesians but was practiced by the early churches, which gave the Roman state a pretext for persecution.
In democratic societies many different strategies for overcoming injustice are desirable, and martyrdom is seldom required but the construction of an alternative society may be as effective today as it has been in the past.