23rd Sunday of Year C (2019)

Forty Martyrs; St Bede’s

We have listened to almost the whole of St Paul’s letter to Philemon, a heartfelt appeal by the apostle on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus. But why does Paul not berate Philemon for having a slave in the first place? Why does he not denounce the practice of slave-holding as the abuse of fellow humans who are made, as we all are, in the image and likeness of God?

Paul was an original and imaginative thinker, but to conceive of a world without slaves was something beyond his capabilities. No one in the ancient world thought slavery was anything other than part of the fixed order of things. It was how the world was. Indeed, slaves made the world function. In Greek and Roman society, slaves allowed men of substance, free men, the time to follow noble pursuits. The more slaves a man owned, the greater his status; and if some of those slaves were educated, then that raised his honour rating too.

The life of a slave could be anywhere along a wide spectrum. A slave in the mines, in the fields or in the galleys would have a pain-filled, wretched and short existence. Perhaps having been plucked from an ordinary life by prates, or captured in war or siege, and sold on in the slave markets that abounded.

A free man could sell himself and his family into slavery as a means of paying debts. A well-educated and talented slave could be part of the family – a tutor to the children, or a secretary to the master. A harsh master might manacle the legs of the slaves at night so he could sleep easily in his bed. The fear of a slave revolt was a regular nightmare, which is why the rebellion of Spartacus was put down with such brutality.

The Israelites accepted the fact of slavery and never railed against it. Their Scriptures constantly reminded them that they had been slaves in Egypt. This reminded them of the wonderful way God had brought them to freedom, ‘with mighty hand and outstretched arm’ when they had exchanged servitude to Pharaoh with serving the One God. And their past served as a challenge to treat their slaves justly. So the slave was to keep Sabbath and rest from servile work. The slave was to be freed after seven years, if he wished to be freed. And when released he was to be given help to establish a future life in freedom. As the Israelites were given valuables by the Egyptians as they fled on Passover night, so the freed slave must not leave empty-handed. This is truly remarkable. No where else in the ancient world do we find such laws.

Jesus frequently used the image of a slave when instructing his followers how they were to act towards each other. They were to be the slave of all, for he himself came not to be served but to serve. While ‘servant’ is often the word used by translators, the word in the New Testament is always ‘doulos’ - slave. A slave had no rights, not even the right to live.

Mary in responding to the angel’s message says she is ‘the slave-girl of the Lord’ whose will she will obey. Jesus took the place of the lowest slave when he washed the disciples’ feet, and he died the death of a slave by being executed on a cross – the fate of slaves and those non-citizens of Rome who challenged Roman power.

Unsurprisingly, slaves found the ideals of Christianity, no longer any distinction between slave and free-man, as attractive; as was the idea of a God-among-us who associated himself with them in his life and his manner of death.

To be a follower of Jesus should never be easy. Jesus in today’s Gospel-passage outlines the difficulties. He uses the word ‘hate’ to emphasise how high might be the cost. Many people would be, disinherited, thrown out of their family for choosing such a weird career-path. Think carefully about what you are doing, he counsels.

We do not know what Onesimus’s fate was. An appeal from Paul surely carried weight. We must imagine he returned to his master, but now a slave of Jesus, as well as a slave of Philemon. Slavery would survive for many centuries and assume even more terrible forms. It continues to exist in many forms, ensnaring dreadful numbers in our world and in our midst, today. If we wonder why Paul did not denounce it in his day, we must ask what we are doing to eradicate it in our time.

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