This blog continues my translation and study of the First Letter of Peter.
1 Peter 2:18
You house-slaves, be obedient to your masters, with all due fear, not only to those who are good and reasonable but even to those who are unreasonable; for you gain favour, if through mindfulness of God, you patiently bear pain, while suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if when you go wrong and are beaten up, you bear it patiently? But if you bear it patiently when you do right and suffer for it, you gain favour with God. You have been called to this patience, because Messiah also suffered on your behalf, leaving an example for you to copy, so that you might follow in his steps. He “did no wrong, neither was any deceit found on his lips.” When he was abused, he did not respond with abuse; when he suffered, he made no threats, but entrusted his case to the One Who Judges Justly.
It is a cliche to note that modern readers find this passage difficult. How easy do we think it was for the house-slaves who first read it? They may have expected something better from their new-found faith. After all, within their house- churches they were treated as equals.
The institution of slavery was taken for granted in the ancient world. Almost everything worthwhile was done by slaves, including for example, education and medicine. Wage labour did exist, but it was often occasional rather than ongoing. Paul had been clear that “in Messiah” such social distinctions had no validity: members of the assemblies were brothers and sisters, equal children of God. But he too taught that slaves should obey masters, and that masters should treat slaves with kindness and justice. Clearly the assemblies knew that slavery was contrary to the justice of Jesus and they practiced that justice. But they did not attempt to reform the injustice of the empire, other than by persuading citizens of the empire to become members of their assemblies.
C 100 GRAFFITO “ALEXAMENOS WORSHIPS HIS GOD” THE CRUCIFIED JESUS HAS A DONKEY’S HEAD, SHOWING THE ARTIST’S SCORN
OK, but did leaders who were not slaves have the right to harangue members who were? Would the recipients of such advice not have felt patronised by being told how to behave by people who had never themselves been whipped or beaten up? Paul had indeed shared his readers’ experience of the hard hand of Rome, and also suggested an intimate connection with the suffering of Jesus. This author highlights the example of Jesus’ non-violence, interpreting it as trust in the justice of God, who preserves the life of the innocent victim for eternal life. The whole church was an assembly of what Paul called the “dregs” of the world, who shared a trust in the crucified Messiah and his Father. There is no attempt to disguise the evil behaviour of some masters: they too await the justice of God.
The early church fulfilled its obligation to be salt for the earth, not by articulating a social and political critique, but by being a social and political critique of the Roman Empire. Paul’s letter to Philemon shows that on occasion this critique could be extended to seeking the liberation of a believing slave from a believing master, but the church had no belief in the abstract equality of all people. For them, equality was “in Messiah” ; they did not believe they were called to reform society.
Modern churches who call for political and social reform without practicing the radical communal sharing of the early believers, have no right to criticise them.
The words quoted are from Isaiah 53 which was a crucial passage for early believers’ understanding of the death of Jesus as fulfilling the role of God’s suffering servant/slave.