Colossians 4 – Seeking Justice for Slaves

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Today’s PassageColossians 4

The bulk of this chapter is personal greetings from Paul to his friends and associates. I don’t have much to say about them, except that they provide an example for investing in other people’s lives. You (the reader) may not know Aristarchus, but if Aristarchus asks you (Paul) to send greetings to the Colossian church from him and Barnabas’s cousin Mark and Jesus who is called Justus, then you (still Paul) send those greetings. Keep in touch with the important people in your life. (Confession: I am mostly terrible at this.) But today I wanted to focus on the first verse of the chapter, which concludes Paul’s previous words on masters and slaves.

Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters. But to the masters, he says: “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven” (1). And it occurs to me: if masters were to grant their slaves justice and fairness, wouldn’t they release them? I remember a sermon addressing why Paul didn’t directly confront the widespread slavery of the ancient world. The pastor argued that Paul knew the futility of a head-on anti-slavery attack; if he merely struggled for social reform, the movement would be crushed by Roman opposition and fail. Alternately, the cause of opposing the ubiquitous practice of slavery would require such an investment of time and resources that if Paul succeeded in that crusade, it would be because he neglected the spread of the gospel. The new social order would be founded not on the dignity of human beings as made in the image of God and capable of finding redemption in Jesus Christ, but on mere human effort. The victory over slavery would be short-lived, or else a host of other evils would emerge in this new society built by sinful humans to the neglect of the gospel. Either way: hollow victory.

I don’t recall the sermon as clearly as I’d like, and odds are good I’ve added my own thoughts to the pastor’s in recapitulating it. And frankly, I haven’t entirely managed to convince myself, much less you, that Paul intended to play the long game against slavery. But if indeed justice and fairness demand that masters grant their slaves freedom, if in fact Christ has died to set men free from their sins–particularly those of cruelty and of treating humans as property–then might Paul’s command “grant your slaves justice and fairness” contain the seeds of a revolution founded on the cross? It just might.

The second half of Paul’s statement, “[Y]ou too have a Master in heaven,” reminded me of one of Jesus’ parables. In Matthew 18:21-35, he tells the story of a slave with an insurmountable debt to his master. The slave begs for mercy and patience from the master, and the master forgives the debt–but when another slave owes the first slave a smaller sum, the forgiven slave turns around and demands immediate payment, even choking the debtor. The master, outraged, reinstates the original slave’s debt and has him thrown into debtor’s prison.

It’s a profoundly uncomfortable parable, not least because of Jesus’ concluding words. He states: “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). And I’ve once again opened up a new can of worms in striving to close the old one, because this verse suggests that God’s forgiveness is not unconditional, comparing God to a master who withdraws his mercy when we fail to meet his standards for moral behavior.

But don’t fairness and righteousness require that God, the Creator and Master over all humanity, punish the forgiven slave for his subsequent pitiless brutality against his fellow slave? The Master, with his kingdom full of imperfect humans, doesn’t want a world where people are allowed to choke each other over debts with no consequence; that’s not justice. He has to work with what he’s got, and what he’s got here is an unrepentantly cruel slave for whom the principle of forgiveness didn’t stick. Moreover, while the slave’s debt is roughly one hundred fifty thousand years’ wages, more than he could hope to pay off on his own, we know that the Master has a Son. What if the Son paid the slave’s debt? Would the slave get it, would his mindset change, would he learn compassion for other human beings? Would the lesson stick then?

Slavery isn’t an easy topic to tackle, and most of the time we prefer not to think about it at all, even as it persists today in the dark corners of our world. But hopefully I’ve answered some questions you don’t have. Thank you for tuning in for Disquieting Scripture Theater; I’ve been your host, Jackson Ferrell. Have a perturbed day.

Chocolate review for Equal Exchange’s Mint Crunch comin’ on Sunday. I think I’m gonna make Sunday the day for chocolate reviews, when I have reviews to post. Seems like a good day for ’em.

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