“Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.
— John 8:34b, 35
The question that Jesus confronts us here is really whose slave will you be?
Or better: Who will be your Master?
When I read this passage, the word “slave” really sticks out to me.
I think about the weight and significance of that word.
Maybe you do too.
What do you know about slavery?
Perhaps over the years you have learned a good deal about the topic as it existed on our own shores here in America…
Maybe you learned a bit about this topic in school, or you saw the movie Roots many years ago… or the movie 12 Years a Slave more recently, and perhaps these acclaimed films made an impression on you.
And I recall watching the 1997 movie Amistad years ago when I was teaching over in Slovakia. I remember being horrified at one point in the film where “with food running low on the ship, the weaker captives are chained together and thrown over the side to drown so that more food will be left for the rest…”[i]
Shocked as I was then at the scene, at this point in my life I would hardly be surprised if it really was based on true events…
And even though it was not like the American form of slavery which was race-based, slavery in ancient Rome, for example, was nevertheless brutal in its own way, enslaving conquered peoples and the poor and the weak with little if any discrimination.
And did you know it is estimated that up to ⅓ of the Roman population may have been slaves, with many slaves, in fact, being owned by other slaves?
But things get crazier still. In the ancient world cruelty was everywhere. Large-scale massacres or genocides, for example, were not really a moral issue, at least in the sense that any conqueror felt he should defend his behavior rather than celebrate it!
It is not surprise then that harsh forms of slavery were literally everywhere also.
Even in “civilized” Rome the father of the “pater-familias”, exercising his patria postestas, could ultimately control whether his own wife or children died
…and so you can be sure the same held true for his slaves…[ii]
Now… maybe you wonder about all the times the Bible talks about slavery…
Why did the Apostle Paul, and evidently God himself, permit it?
Have you seen how Paul writes his letters, addressing both masters and slaves? And urging the former to treat his slaves well, and for the latter to submit?
Many professing Christians have vigorously defended slavery without any real sensitivity to nuance over the years – and not just European men, by the way[iii] – not seeing it as that significant, for example, that the Apostle Paul really does seem to want Philemon to free his slave Onesimus.
They also seem to have not thought it was that important that the early Christians were well-known for buying slaves and freeing them.
So, what should we say if someone asks us the following?:
“Why does Scripture… repeatedly command slaves to obey their masters if… slavery is morally impermissible?”
I’d say this: “Perhaps because Scripture advocates radical but not [politically] revolutionary activities?”
And then I’d say this:
We are taught by Jesus to do unto others what we would want them to do us. We are told by Paul to not make ourselves slaves to men, and even to gain our freedom if we can (see I Cor. 7:21,23). Would you at least agree that most everyone today values political freedom such that they would not want to be slaves of men, and if they were, they’d rather be bought and then freed?”
I think about all of those things and more when I think of the word slavery…
Also, especially, I think about how God certainly never saw slavery as something desirable for his own people Israel, saying in Leviticus 25: 39-42:
“‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves” (see also Exodus 21:2).
This, we are told by the Bible historian William Barclay, became “a fundamental article of [the Jew’s] creed of life.”
The Jews knew that they might end up being slaves in their bodies for a short time – but they would not be in their spirits, and would keep fighting against those who would keep them down!
The Jewish historian Josephus, living in Jesus’ time, supports this analysis, and often wrote of his countrymen and their numerous insurrections and rebellions.
He said, for instance: “They have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and they say that God is to be their only ruler and Lord” (Antiquities of the Jews, 18: I.6, in Barclay, Daily Study Bible, John, v. 2, 26).
So the Jews in our Gospel text today might well be asserting that they, fundamentally, have not lost their identity!
They have not become one with the pagans around them; without their God and without hope!
They are the seed of Abraham!
For, as Barclay puts it, “even to suggest to a Jew that he might be regarded as a slave was a deadly insult.” (Barclay, 27)
And today we, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, recoil at being made a slave.
It doesn’t matter to us that the reality of slavery has been with us since the earliest of days! That there are few exceptions to this rule throughout human history…
Being in such a state is not to be countenanced! Never.
I’ll tell you about another kind of slavery though that we are not nearly as concerned about….
I am a relatively frequent email correspondent with an American man who, after being a blue-collar worker for many years, achieved his goal of becoming an accomplished academic librarian, and he recently retired after serving as the director of an academic library in Rome.
We were talking about money and economics a bit recently, and he said something I’ll never forget…
Before I tell you what he told me however, listen to what a man named Dale Martin writes in his book “Slavery as Salvation The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity”
“[I] wonder if any slave who was advancing in ancient society would seriously have entertained [the question as to whether a slave was ‘really’ a person or was a piece of property] since access to wealth and power was the name of the game in antiquity, and legal self-sale could quickly bring both to a slave in the form of a huge cash payment (read ‘working capital’) and access to the kind of managerial duties that the new owner would require of such slaves in his household. It was always possible that, if affairs went well, self-sold slaves could buy themselves back from slavery before too long.”]
Maybe when we hear about slaves in Rome being considered non-persons – and the abject lack of rights that came along with this designation – we have a really hard time understanding that in some cases, selling one’s self as a slave to a wealthy and decent master was also a means of social mobility: again, a way to come into cash, wealth, and power, which again, we are told was “the “name of the game in antiquity”…
Now, the promised quote from my friend in modern Rome:
“For the last few weeks a part from an online interview that took place not long after 9/11 has been in my thoughts. I haven’t been able to find it but it was an interview with one of those high-powered stock traders. He worked, I think, in Chicago, or maybe he was in New York City but he was not close to the Twin Towers. He said that he, and the other traders he worked with, watched the Twin Towers go down on TV (or out the window, I cannot remember) and he asked: “What do you think went through my head at that moment?” And he answered, “I was thinking: How is this going to affect the markets? What will be the best ways to take advantage of all of this?” He discovered that all of the other traders were thinking exactly the same thing at the time of that terrible destruction and death.
He was appalled at his own behavior, and said that it was a kind of sickness that had taken over the entire financial sector.”
So do you want to talk about slavery?
Well, what kind of slavery is this? That people’s desires could become so warped, so twisted, horrifies not only Christians, I am sure, but even many an unbeliever the world over.
Things were similar in Luther’s day. The concern for worldly wealth was driving large parts of the Church’s leadership. You probably remember that there was an indulgence preacher – Johann Tetzel – who had come near Luther’s town saying things like “When the coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs.”
Here is a good summary of why that is happening:
“The occasion for [Tetzel’s] preaching of indulgences near Wittenberg was Pope Leo X’s commissioning of their sale for Albrecht of Mainz. Albrecht was already bishop of the diocese of Magdeburg, but sought a second see in Mainz. In order to pay the fines levied for his pluralism (occupation of a second bishopric), Albrecht obtained a sizeable loan from the Fugger bankers in Augsburg. Leo X authorized the sale of indulgences to repay the loan to the Fuggers and help subsidize the rebuilding of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. The pope published a 1515 bull commissioning the sale and Tetzel—prior in Leipzig since 1509—was conscripted to preach it…”[iv]
Two of the reasons that people say they avoid church these days is that the church is full of hypocrites and is always asking for money…
In Luther’s commentary on John chapter 8, our text for today, we also see similar concerns.
Luther says that when the Jews feel insulted by Jesus here and say “We are not slaves; we are free, for we are Abraham’s seed….” they were essentially saying “….Abraham’s seed has the promise of God to be the head, yes, not the tail but the head (Deut. 28:13), which is to soar above the world and not cower on the ground…” (397, LW 23)
In other words, the Jews, he says, were abusing and misusing God’s promises, making them all about temporal things. They were not concerned about having eternal life with God: how to have their sins forgiven, and how to be free from them.
Rather, it was all about the identity they had apart from Jesus’ interference! They were who they were by birth and what they did, and God would bless them with the high status they deserved….
Luther goes on to compare them to the pope and his bishops of his day who, “whenever they do something good… are motivated by a selfish ambition for honor, money, and goods… Their one concern is honor and wealth…might, and pleasures…” (402)
In other words, Luther was saying that in Jesus’ day as in his people were using Christianity to be successful in the world, gaining worldly treasures.
And yet, if the Christian faith is not focused on delivering these things but rather deliverance from sin, death, and the devil – and it is – will those who believe that it is about worldly success and pleasures want to hold on to it – particularly when suffering and/or persecution comes at them fast and furiously?
Or will the Christian faith be left behind, where not even any of the desirable “external trappings” of the church are wanted, but other external things become all we care about?
While all of life’s riches and pleasures are not necessarily sinful in themselves, we nevertheless sinfully misuse them and can be led even deeper into sin, complacency, and a fatal lack of poverty of spirit….
And for this, judgement comes…
Looking at Revelation 18:13, a few chapters after learning about how by gaining the “Mark of the Beast” men and women will be able to buy and sell… to participate in the economic activity of the world… the Apostle John combines our dual issues of slavery and wealth here, saying the following about the “one great hour” where all Babylon’s riches will “come to nothing”:
“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over [fallen Babylon] because no one buys their cargoes anymore— cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves….”
Or, as the King James Version puts it more accurately to the Greek: “…and slaves, and souls of men….”
In the worst conditions, this meant being “sold at auction as human livestock for domestic service, prostitution, and gladiatorial amusements…” (Orthodox Study Bible, 624).
Talk about illicit economic activity you don’t want to support…. Did you know that often the same kind of thing happens today as well?
In poor countries, many parents are desperate enough to sell their children, and these children often end up in brothels, serving as prostitutes or sex slaves…
Perhaps closer to home, many of our smart phones we use and the chocolate we eat, for example, are produced in no small part through the use of slave labor.
As my friend from Rome put it “If people claim to be against slavery, why do they focus on what happened a couple of hundred years ago and not what is happening right under their noses?”
Even if we don’t really see ourselves as complicit in such a system – not seeing many possible alternatives before us (we all need smart phones don’t we?) – can we at least admit it would be good thing if there was a better way?
One wonders: just like the women who sees her baby via the ultrasound and begins to think she should keep it, might we, upon seeing and knowing one of these workers, think twice about our own more distant involvement with them?
In any case, we have spoken here about two pictures… two kinds of slavery.
One is the common picture of slavery: the one which has often been imposed on others throughout world history but sometimes has also been entered into “voluntarily”… yet also out of a sense of economic necessity… like in the contemporary Netflix special Squid Game…
The other is this new picture we have now introduced, where men and women enslaved to their own passions for money, wealth, status… their own personal comfort and even luxury, are willing to make Mammon their God and to make men and women their slaves, formally or informally, in the process….
Maybe even to create even new “black” and “white” categories, “in” and “out” groups, in order to aid them in their goals….
The world will treat you like a mere number, dispose of you, or at the very least make it clear to you where you stand vis a vis their social circles…
Perhaps in the coming world of social credit systems and passport systems, as you arrive at this or that destination, for example, Big Data will let you know that “Your recent Amazon purchases, Facebook score, church attendance, and location history make you 23.5% welcome here…” and you won’t make the cut-off.
You will be left behind to fend for yourself…
Perhaps your family, if you are blessed, and a few friends, if you are blessed, will fight for you.
Even many clear-eyed unbelievers – at least those who perhaps know world history better than your average bear and doggedly don’t forget it even if surrounded by pressure to do so – can see this…
Everything we have talked about so far tells us a lot about human nature and how fallen we are….
The real slavery, however is far worse than even this….The thing is, we have just touched the surface: there is an even worse kind of slavery that Jesus is getting at here…
You might wonder about this – how does “coveting,” that is, the desire to take what does not belong to you – rate when compared with things like murder, adultery, stealing, and slandering, for example?
Why is it in the 10 commandments?
In fact, based on the way that the Lutherans and Roman Catholics number the 10 “words” that appear unnumbered in Exodus 20, there are not just one but two commandments against coveting: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house,” that is, his property, and “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass (that is, your neighbor’s relationships, with other people and animals!), nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.”
What is really interesting about coveting is that it has to do with the second half of the 10 commandments, the second table of the commandments that deal with how we are to treat our neighbor. And yet, the other commandments here are external actions. How does coveting really hurt my neighbor? What is the harm?
Well, here we remember what Jesus says about murder and adultery. Even hating your neighbor, or even lusting for one who is not your wife, is a violation of God’s law. The heart matters as well. Not just external actions but what is stirring inside internally as well…
And this does make some sense even to non-Christians, right — even if Jesus might seem like He is being overly harsh… After all, certainly, before I steal my neighbor’s property I have coveted it… before I commit adultery I have coveted the woman who is not my wife….
But the rubber really hits the road when we hear what the Apostle Paul has to say about the matter in Col. 3:5: “Covetousness is idolatry….”
What this means is that the last commandments of the 10 commandments and the first ones as well both have to do with idolatry, one from the aspect of our relationship with God — the first commandment — and one from the aspect of our relationship with our neighbor — the last two commandments.
In other words, the 10 commandments come full circle! There is quite the symmetry here! It is like the 10 commandments — which yes, largely deal with external actions — are bookended by the ones that deal with the internal realities…
But how is coveting idolatry? The Christian commentator Gene Veith, whose own pastor taught him about this topic in a sermon, says
“To sinfully desire what your neighbor has is to be discontented with what God has given you. It is thus a failure to ‘fear, love and trust in God above all things,’ in the words of the Catechism, which is also what it means to violate the first commandment! Both have to do with the lack of faith.”
In other words, coveting is simply unbelief.
This diagnoses the sinful condition of man like nothing else!
If we simply kept the first commandment and had no other gods but the God of the Bible, everything else would take care of itself. As Luther’s Large Catechism puts it: “where the heart is rightly disposed towards God, and this first commandment is observed, all the others follow….”[v]
And yet, this is the condition of sin… sinful man cannot keep these commandments…
Mankind is truly in bondage here, and we cannot free ourselves.
Here, our own strength, our own powers, our own choices, our own decision, our own reason…. are of no avail!
As Romans 3 puts it: the law condemns each and every man and woman on earth, and shuts us all up before God.
Be silent before the only One who is Good!
So, what are all people, what are all those who were born of a woman, born into sin… the whole world over… to do?
As Paul puts it, speaking even for Christians who will always continue to struggle… who will save us from this body of death?!
Who will protect us from one another and even our own selves?
Who will save us not only from corrupt economic and political powers who trade in our souls, but from the Deeper and more profound enemy of the devil – who is the Prince of this World – and our own sin, and the “fruit” of death that it brings?
This is why we are Lutherans this Reformation Day, because we ask this question the Apostle Paul asked, even as every one claiming the name Christian should ask this question, and recite his answer:
Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death…
Through Christ’s death on the cross and glorious resurrection God forgives us both our external and internal sins.
We are therefore no longer slaves to our passions, but His children who inherit His Spirit…
….and therefore in our renewed minds we gladly see the wisdom of, and uphold, His law — even being willing to say we are slaves to it! — as He gives us the pardon and power that we need!
“[A] slave has no permanent place in the family,” and I think that we can all get a sense of just how true this is…
“…but a son belongs to it forever….”
The Lifelong Loyalty and Hope that we are all looking for, the freedom from all earthly slavery, can only be found in the Lord Jesus Christ!
We often forget this, don’t we?
“Father forgive [us], for we know not what [we] do…”
I’ll leave the final word today with Luther, from a sermon he gave on this same text:
“The Jews want to do the same thing [as the Pope and his bishops are doing] here. They say [to Christ]: “You carpenter’s apprentice, You beggar, You poor simpleton! You want to make us free? You claim that your words eclipse all our good works and our laws, making them to no effect. Therefore kill Him, kill Him! Burn Him, and crucify Him!” So it goes.
[It is a sublime sermon that we are saved only by faith in Christ]. The Holy Spirit presents and submits it to the children and to the simple-minded. Old fools like me learn this with great difficulty. Little children learn it best. Others learn this wisdom too well, assuming that when they have heard it once, they know it all. I, however, feel that I cannot understand it. St. Paul has the same complaint, saying that he would like to believe and accept this as the Word of God, but that in his flesh there is someone who wars against it and will not accept it (Rom. 7:18-19). Therefore, the central fact of this freedom [we have in Christ] must be proclaimed daily. Then the other freedom will surely follow. But if you want to begin with, and treat of, physical freedom, you will become so muddled and confused that you will lose both freedoms. You must bear this in mind. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Both hell and death are his masters. He cannot escape them. How, then, can I become free? Men answer: “[I do good works!] I will erect a chapel, endow an eternal Mass, go on pilgrimages, fast, become a monk, etc.” But Christ says: “…No, let Him who is called the Son of God deliver you from sin; then you will be free. If you give yourself to Him and let Him set you free, all is well. Otherwise everything will be vain and futile, no matter what else you do.”
* The question asked in this video, which contains some rather compelling content: https://twitter.com/Saved_To_Serve/status/1452330888935706625
[ii] Historically what human nature and history teaches us about social hierarchies and oppression is not encouraging or pretty…: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsmWI1TnfDA
The thing that stands out to me the most in that video is the lack of respect for the offspring of slaves in the ancient world (around 6 minutes and up), as the children of slave women took on the legal status of their mothers (see here too; and more excruciatingly painful detail can also be found in this old book: https://archive.org/details/dayinoldromepict00davi/page/n11/mode/2up)
The Christian theologian and historian John G. Nordling fills us in a bit on what things were like in the Ancient Rome in the days of Jesus and His Apostles. His 2004 commentary on Philemon in the Concordia Commentary series is also very shocking in this regard. In it, he writes about what we can really know about slavery in the Greco-Roman world, and it is not pretty (that 10 minute video shows just a bit of this). You can tell he did a lot of research on his topic (see 39-139 in the commentary). You can also listen to his 2009 Issues ETC interview where it is clear both he and Wilken get a bit uncomfortable talking about the topic (note that at the end, he almost seems like he might nevertheless wholly endorse the northern abolitionists and all their efforts, which I found very interesting given the information covered in the commentary).
Nordling See, esp. 52-56, 67 (fn 152)
“…none of the slaves [of the ancient world]… had any ‘personhood’ whatsoever…
However, we may wonder whether the subordinates were ever much bothered by such modern scruples. We would be quite mistaken, for example, if we were to think that Roman fathers routinely put their children to death just because they had the power to do so!”
It is true that for some at least, slavery was a means of “upward mobility” (in various ways) in the ancient world. Bradly, author of Slavery and Society in Rome even states that “no occupation in Roman society was closed to slaves,” except something like military service (quoted in Nordling, 130). Nevertheless, legally these were non-persons. On page 63 of Nordling’s commentary we read:
“…Gal 2:26. Already at this point in his argument, Paul anticipated Gal 4:1-7, wherein he would elaborate on how a son in Greco-Roman society under patria potestas was as much a [legal] ‘non-person’ in the sight of the law as were slaves and other disenfranchised members of the household.”
“Those subject to [patria potestas, ‘the father’s authority’] could have no property of their own, and their lives were almost wholly controlled by their pater-familias” (Crook, Law and Life of Rome, 107, quoted in Nordling, 63, fn 135.
Yes, we know that slavery in Rome was not race-based (at least explicitly so…) and that again, it also seems to have had – at least for some – real opportunities for upward mobility and even freedom for those who sold themselves into slavery.
Still it is difficult for many of us to fathom a world like this, where one human being can in fact essentially be the absolute property of another. Not only this, but if the master gave one of his slaves a wife, then their children, also, became the master’s property.
[v] Content for this part of the sermon largely lifted from this excellent blog post by Gene Veith: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2020/08/the-problem-with-coveting/