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God’s Word for You

Luke 17:7-9 slavery

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, November 8, 2018

Jesus had taught his apostles about the power of working in the kingdom: the smallest faith could and would produce spectacular results, as amazing as planting a tree in the sea. But then the Lord immediately added a reminder of the place of all workers in that kingdom. We are not the masters. We are unworthy slaves of our God.

7 “Suppose one of you has a slave plowing or watching the sheep. When he comes in from the field, will he say to the slave, “Come now, sit down to eat’?  8 Instead, won’t he say, ‘Get my supper ready, change your clothes and serve me while I eat and drink; and after that you may eat and drink’?  9 Does he thank the slave because he did what he was commanded?

The Greek word doulos (δοῦλος) is often translated “servant,” but our cultural understanding of a servant is someone who works for wages. The modern term doula, a woman who is a childbirth assistant, likewise works for wages, and her title, doula, is taken directly from the Greek term doulē “female slave.” Jesus’ point is not a gentle one, but a reminder of the master-slave relationship regarding reward for service in the kingdom of God, so here I have translated δοῦλος “slave.” Jesus is not advocating or defending the practice of slavery, but making an application in a culture that embraced slavery as a part of life.

In fact, this application seems to be a parable, an “interrogative parable,” not presented as a story, but as a question, teaching the apostles to take a clear and obvious scene from life and apply it to their faith. The master in the parable is not a lazy sluggard. Like the slave, he, too, is coming in from the field. They both have had a hard day’s work. The master doesn’t wait on the slave, he expects the slave to wait on him, and even to get cleaned up and wear the appropriate clothes (“change your clothes and serve me”) before being dismissed to go and have his dinner at last.

The slave simply did what he was commanded. The parable-question isn’t asking us to consider the slave’s feelings, or the motives of the master, but simply the bald facts of the moment. Does a slave deserve thanks for his obedience? The answer in their society was, “No.”

Before we apply this parable to Christians, which is the only application, it’s about time to talk about the origin of slavery and perhaps the ethics of slavery. References to slavery extend back to the most ancient documents of history. The Law Code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC, shortly after Joseph’s death in Egypt) contained some laws about slavery, including the following points:

  • Kidnapping for slavery or other purposes was a capital crime (14).
  • Bringing a trial or lawsuit (usually an instantaneous procedure in ancient times) against a slave outside the city’s court (which was the city gate) was a capital crime (15).
  • Secretly housing a runaway slave was a capital crime (16,19).
  • Returning a runaway slave should be rewarded (2 shekels, 17). If a runaway runs away from the man who found him, that man is not responsible (20).
  • A runaway slave’s master should be sought out even up to the highest authority (“bring him to the palace”) to restore him to his master (18).
  • A slave could be handed over to repay a debt (118).
  • If a female slave “who has borne him children” (a concubine) is used to attempt to repay a debt, the buyer must be reimbursed by the seller and the woman shall be set free (119).

The earliest reference to slavery in the Bible comes after the Flood, when Noah curses his grandson Canaan: “May Canaan be the slave of Shem” (Genesis 9:26). Augustine thought this was the very first enslavement ever: “It is with justice, we believe, that the condition of slavery is the result of sin. And this is why we do not find the word ‘slave’ in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature.” (City of God 19:15).

The ancient writer Homer is quoted as saying that making a man a slave changed a man to make him a slave by nature, but what he said was, “Servants never do their work when their master’s hand is no longer over them, for Zeus takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him” (Odyssey). We could apply Homer’s words to fit the context better if we said, “The sinful nature festers without the law to keep it in check.”

Greek philosophers like Aristotle thought that slavery was good for some who were incapable of any productive contribution to society. They would be cared for and made to make a contribution of sorts, and without the need for as many prisons. He said, “Indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life” (Politics).

Ethically, the kind of slavery for profit carried out in Europe and the Americas in the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries was an atrocity that should never be repeated.

Although I cannot bring myself to agree with it, I understand Aristotle’s ancient position to be that a government might choose to allow slavery or not for an individual (never for a race) as it sees fit, as long as there is a system in place to take care of those individuals who are unable to care for themselves. We almost have a system like this in America, but it has many flaws, and in some places slavery has another name. In some dark corners even here in Minnesota, slavery exists blatantly as slavery, and those who take part in it will be judged.

For a Christian, Paul has an urgent command which he sheathes in a request: “Have him (the slave in question)…no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 15-16). Treat him “both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 16), and “Welcome him as you would welcome me” (Philemon 17).

This is how we should act toward one another, but Jesus applies the ancient fact of slavery as an example of something very different. It is the relationship we should remember when thinking of any reward we might desire from God. More about this with the next verse.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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