bible blog 1458

THe readings are from the catholic lectionary for daily mass, while the headlines are meant to keep my thinking real:


protest in Isfahan

protest in Isfahan

First reading

Ephesians 6:1-9

Children, be obedient to your parents in the Lord – that is your duty. The commandment that has a promise attached to it is: Honour your father and mother, and the promise is: and you will prosper and have a long life in the land. And parents, never drive your children to resentment but in bringing them up correct them and guide them as the Lord does.
Slaves, be obedient to the men who are called your masters in this world, with deep respect and sincere loyalty, as you are obedient to Christ: not only when you are under their eye, as if you had only to please men, but because you are slaves of Christ and wholeheartedly do the will of God. Work hard and willingly, but do it for the sake of the Lord and not for the sake of men. You can be sure that everyone, whether a slave or a free man, will be properly rewarded by the Lord for whatever work he has done well. And those of you who are employers, treat your slaves in the same spirit; do without threats, remembering that they and you have the same Master in heaven and he is not impressed by one person more than by another.

Slaves formed a significant part of the Christian communities in the Roman Empire. The institution of slavery is taken for granted in the literature of the Bible, and in other literature of the time. Although at times, such as the slave revolt in Rome, the conditions of slavery might be argued, the institution was never, to my knowledge, questioned. There is a recognition that slavery is shameful, and the Bible sets out special rules for the liberation of slaves. Arisitotle thought that some men and women were fitted by character for slavery, which was a comforting thought for a man who kept slaves. Jesus told stories about slaves which assume their inferiority to their masters. Most translations gloss over this fact by translating the Greek for slaves as “servants.”

The ignorance of the ruling class of people of almost all physical, technical, educational, and bureaucratic labour meant that societies were compltely dependent on their slaves for their prosperity and even survival. In consequence, trade in slaves was an important part of any economy. Slaves could be supplied from the populations of conquered peoples, or from the unfortuately large numbers of people unable to pay their debts.

Paul was a free citizen of the Empire, possibly through a liberation of slaves in Tarsus his native city. You can tell from his writing that he recognises the equality of people “under God”, which would apply within the Christian community but not within civil society. His letter to Philemon argues for the liberation of a runaway slave who has become a believer. Still, his acceptance of the status quo in society and the tone of his teaching for slaves owes just a little to his own status as a free citizen. Doubtless he wanted to preserve faith in Jesus Messiah from any imputation that it was socially disruptive, while according slaves their full humanity within the Messianic community.

In this passage Paul emphasises that respect for masters is to be given not for themselves but for God who will reward all labour done in his name. Masters are reminded that they share another master with their slaves and will receive no favouritism from Him. If this seems a mealy-mouthed response to an evident injustice, we should remember the ferocious punishments which ended the Third Slave Rebellion(the Spartacus Rebellion) in Rome in 71 BCE. Although there were many slave rebellions in the Empire none ever succeeded in achieving anything except slaughter.

spartacusSome have argued that the early Churches with their dual policy of equality within and acceptance of hierarchy outside, were effective agents of change, especially by means of giving real authority in their communities to slaves  who in their civil life were always under authority. If we compare the church’s attitude to slavery in the ancient world to its attitude to the status of women or gay people in modern times, the advantage is all with the ancient church who practiced an equality in their commnunities which was later adiopted by civil societies; whereas in respect of the status of women and gays many churches have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into good practices pioneered by civil societies.

Equality of all people under God is a good starting point for any Christian view of inequality.

Luke 13:22-30

Through towns and villages Jesus went teaching, making his way to Jerusalem. Someone said to him, ‘Sir, will there be only a few saved?’ He said to them, ‘Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.
‘Once the master of the house has got up and locked the door, you may find yourself knocking on the door, saying, “Lord, open to us” but he will answer, “I do not know where you come from.” Then you will find yourself saying, “We once ate and drank in your company; you taught in our streets” but he will reply, “I do not know where you come from. Away from me, all you wicked men!”
‘Then there will be weeping and grinding of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves turned outside. And men from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.
‘Yes, there are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last.’

narrow door

narrow door

Behind these sayings lies the image of the House of God, where the victory banquet of God’s Messiah will be held. Entry to this house depends on the actions of men and women in this world. Jesus Messiah was making his way to Jerusalem where he would suffer rejecton and death. On the way he told people that they could only get into God’s household by the same door as himself, by following his way. This is called narrow because it is not easy and will not accomodate the comfortable, the casual, or the half-hearted. Mere acquaintance with Jesus is not enough to secure entry; commitment is necessary. The gathering at the Messianic banquet will be surprising as it will include people from all corners of the world, and may exclude some who call themselves Israelites. Luke has another image of this banquet where the gathering includes the “poor, the blind and the lame”. The implication is clear: some who think themselves first in the queue for God’s house will be sent to the back while some at the back will be promoted to the head of the queue.

Perhaps some of those sent to the back would be slave owners and some of those promoted to the front would be slaves.

Jesus’ gospel begins with God’s gracious acceptance of sinners; but it doesn’t end there. It requires people to follow Jesus’ way which turns out to be unacceptable to some of them..

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