SCRIPTURE NOTEBOOK by Fr John Wijngaards
IN today's Gospel Jesus presents us with a beautiful little parable. What a pity that this parable, with other sayings of Jesus, came to be used by some Christians as an argument to prove that God allows slavery.
Jesus says that. if we own a slave we will expect him to serve us whole-heartedly. Even after a full day's work, the slave will first wait at table till his owners have eaten. "In the same way", Jesus tells us, "when you have done all you have been told to do, say: 'We are merely slaves. We have done no more than our duty'."
Jesus draws lessons for us even from wrong practices as we have seen. The unjust manager teaches us to use foresight and determination but Jesus does not recommend his cheating (Luke 16, 1-8). The Son of Man will come unexpectedly as a thief in the night (Mt 24,42-44). Does Jesus thereby justify stealing?
The same is true here. The total service of a slave shows us how we should serve God singlemindedly. But Jesus does not thereby condone the institution of slavery or hold up slavery as something willed or tolerated by God. Unfortunately, this is how the passage was interpreted by theologians and Church leaders in the past. It is all the more inexcusable because the Apostle Paul has so clearly enunciated the principle of freedom and equal dignity in Christ.
Paul had stated in unequivocal terms: "You are, all of you, children of God through faith in Christ Jesus". He then goes on to say: "There are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. All of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3, 26-28).
This prophetic ideal of true equality challenged the social order of the time, and it still challenges us because it has still not been fully realised. Paul said that, on account of Christ, all people equally share in the dignity of being Children of God.
Christ has abolished in principle the sexual, social and racial divisions created by people in the course of time.
It is estimated that in the cities of the Graeco-Roman empire and in their dependent estates up to 30 per cent of the population were slaves. By law, slaves were nonpersons. They were property which masters could dispose of as they wished. This was untenable for Paul in the light of Christian faith.
Paul saw no way in which the whole economic and social system of his time could be overturned. He advised slaves to obtain freedom from their masters, if they could do so (1 Cor 7,21). He asked some masters to release particular slaves (Philemon 17-19). But he never called for violent revolution. He urged masters and slaves to treat each other as persons, reminding them that for Christ "every slave is a free person and a free person a slave" (1 Cor 7,22).
Yet, the principle of equality in Christ should lead us to a total appraisal of social and economic systems. Slavery, however, persisted through the Christian Middle Ages. Only in the 19th century was it abolished in most European countries when the enlightenment and Christian conscience combined to outlaw it.
With hindsight we now realise it should never have taken so long for Christians to translate such a precious principle of our faith into political reality. We feel ashamed now of the theologians and church leaders who defended slavery on the grounds that it was an institution willed by God, and who quoted even Jesus' own words in support of such a doctrine. What a contrast to the declaration of the Second Vatican Council: "Every form of slavery or discrimination is an abomination and contrary to God's design".
I am reflecting on these past failings to destroy any complacency on our part. It is sad that we Christians are capable of twisting even Jesus' words to keep people in sub mission. For the ideal enunciated by Paul has by no means been fully attained in our day.
Physical slavery hardly exists in any country nowadays. But other forms of total dependence still hold many people in their grip. There is much that remains to he done to ensure that our full unity in Christ can be celebrated without any discrimination between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.