The Twenty-third Sunday After Trinity
Joseph and slavery
Early in the 16th century, missionary friars followed the Spanish fleet westward across the Atlantic and sized up the colonization project under way in South and Central America. The Dominicans in particular were aghast at the Spaniards’ treatment of the native populations.
Unprovoked aggression, deceit, robbery and even genocide were all on the menu. The friars’ protests found an audience back in Europe. In 1500, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain outlawed taking the Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Central America, as well as natives of the Canary Islands, as slaves.
History is always messy, of course, and this situation proved no exception. To curb conflict between the conquering forces of the two great maritime powers Spain and Portugal, Pope Alexander VI divided the world into spheres of influence in which each would have hegemony.
Up until this very day the Spaniards had been locked in a struggle with Islam for control of their own territory and one result was a militant style of Christianity that viewed all non-Christians as enemies or potential enemies and in need of conversion – not only for the health of their own souls but also for the preservation of Christianity and Christians.
In 1512 Spain enacted laws interpreting Pope Alexander’s bulls granting them overlordship that established what amounted to rules of engagement with the Indians of the Americas. Under these laws, natives who cooperated and agreed to the teaching of Christianity in their communities would not be subject to use of force.
In practice, this regime proved not even as benign as it may have sounded to Spanish ears. The friars continued to see cause for outrage all around them as colonization proceeded and they kept up a drumbeat of protest.
A plantation owner and colonial official named Bartolome de las Casas heard an angry sermon by a Dominican and reacted in the strangest way: He repented. Turning away from his corrupt and comfortable life, he set a course that led to ordination as a priest and he soon joined the Dominicans. Beginning in 1514 he spent a half-century as a forceful and eloquent advocate for decency and humane treatment of the Indians.
His pleas caught the ears of Cardinal Ximenes, the Church’s top official back in Spain, and even Emperor Charles V, who ordered debates on the morality of colonization. The debates yielded mixed results at best, however, and whatever high-blown rhetoric might sail around Europe Las Casas had to deal with facts on the ground in the New World.
Las Casas hit upon a solution to the exploitation of Indians as a labor force: The Spaniards would replace them with African slaves. His compassion had overwhelmed his judgment. The folly of rescuing one group from degradation and abuse by visiting treatment more vile still on another group became apparent, but too late.
By that time, the expansion of the Portuguese trade in human cargo, already well established in the previous century, was well under way in the Americas and a huge new market for plantation slaves was thriving.
Subsequent developments reverberate today in the Americas, including our own patch. The poisoned race relations of our place and time have their roots in those events of 500 years ago.
Which is not to say slavery was something new in the Middle Ages. The Bible gives us our first look at the practice in the Joseph story before us now. His brothers are angry with him for his perceived arrogance. They see him approaching and they say:
“Come therefore, let us now kill him and cast him into some pit; and we shall say, `Some wild beast has devoured him.’ We shall see what will become of his dreams!” But Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands, and said, “Let us not kill him.” And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness, and do not lay a hand on him”– that he might deliver him out of their hands, and bring him back to his father. So it came to pass, when Joseph had come to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of many colors that was on him. Then they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat a meal. Then they lifted their eyes and looked, and there was a company of Ishmaelites, coming from Gilead with their camels, bearing spices, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry them down to Egypt. So Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.” And his brothers listened. Then Midianite traders passed by; so the brothers pulled Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt (Genesis 37:20-28).
This sordid tale introduces the subject of slavery in the Bible, a matter that has loosed torrents of commentary. Much of it has criticized Christians and our sacred text for a failure to condemn the trafficking of people – and Christians do indeed have much to answer for, not only in keeping silent but also for owning slaves while professing Christ.
Our Lord, on the other hand, does not. Condemnation of the book He has given us, as usual, proceeds from a misunderstanding of that book. The Bible does of course discuss slavery, which was common in antiquity, as it does any number of evils. I’m reminded of St. Augustine’s complaint before his conversion. The rhetorician groused that the biblical authors trafficked in tawdry tales of deceit and rape and murder. He might have added slavery to his list.
To acknowledge a practice is not to approve it, however, and reporting that Cain slew Abel hardly constitutes an endorsement of murder. For that matter, neither is to regulate it to condone it. The Old Testament stipulates rules for slave owners within Israel but most of them serve to protect those slaves. One statute forbids selling or owning another person under penalty of capital punishment:
“He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:16).
A master who struck a slave so forcefully he lost a tooth or an eye was commanded to set him free. Any who killed his slave forfeited his own life. Despite what we hear in some precincts, these are hardly the parameters of slavery in the American South before the Civil War.
In Israel, slaves were those who defaulted on their debts. Their masters were obligated to house and feed them and treat them humanely. Slaves regained their freedom when they had worked off their debts or in every Sabbath, or seventh, year, whichever came first. Some chose to remain in service and submitted to the piercing of an earlobe to mark them as slaves in perpetuity.
Still, we would err if we romanticized an institution in which one person owned another – and his children. It was a fact of life in the ancient world much as legalized abortion is in ours. To recognize it is not to approve it.
The New Testament throws new light on many practices described in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus rebukes the Jerusalem leaders who had allowed men to divorce their wives for burning the toast. He explains that Moses had tolerated divorce among their fathers because of their hardness of heart but that divorce had never been part of God’s plan.
St. Paul rails against the sexual sins that had become commonplace among pagans and admonishes the church against accepting them. And he insists that, whatever social pecking order man might put in place, God shows no partiality based on station in this life – even regarding slaves:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
To drill down to the core of the Bible’s attitude toward slavery, though, we must not stop here. A week ago I asked you to keep one eye engaged with the broader context whenever you read God’s word. That principle could not be more apropos in this area.
Jesus does not condemn slavery for the same reason He does not lead a rebellion against the Roman oppressor who was grinding first-century Jews under his heel. God has erupted in His creation to deliver His people from slavery, to be sure – but from slavery to sin. Servitude, whether to the Romans or to a Jewish master, is a fleeting affliction of this life.
Slavery to sin will confine the soul in everlasting torment.
Jesus told Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36).
The Jews could not raise their gaze above the horizon and grasp that if their long-awaited Messiah commanded them in war against their colonial occupier, if He spurred them on to meet force with force, He would corrupt His own cause and defeat His own mission. The Prince of Peace had come to usher in eternal shalom, not to perpetuate temporal conflict.
His every step advances His purpose of abject surrender on the cross. His enemy understands. When His favored disciple Peter tries to deter Him He rebukes him with those chilling words, “Get behind Me, Satan.” He must surrender His life to claim victory over sin and death not for Himself but for all who will put their trust in His saving sacrifice.
As always, under old covenant and new, God’s concern was with the motives of His people’s hearts. Dictating the abolition of slavery might have spared bodies but it would have crushed souls. Any who freed their slaves under compulsion without a change of heart would have died in their trespasses and sins.
God does not dictate your actions; He entreats you to surrender your heart to Him . . . knowing that for those who do right conduct will follow. This is grace. Law enslaves: It makes demands. Grace liberates: It asks for a response of love. But handle it with care. Grace is for grown-ups. It is wasted on children. It will find a home only within mature believers.
There’s an incarnational principle embedded in this grace that we must not miss.
I will not hector you about going on a diet. I will impress upon you that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and worthy of treatment as such.
I will not berate you about giving liberally and even sacrificially to God’s work. I will point you to the Scripture that tells you God loves a cheerful giver.
I will not beat you up about attending church regularly. I will try to lead you deep into worship so elevated and resplendent that you would never conceive of missing it for any other activity.
It’s your heart your Lord wants. If you surrender your heart to Him, your mind will follow.
And this principle applies not only for the priests of God but for His entire priesthood of believers. Approach your husband or wife, your children, parents, brothers, sisters, neighbors and, yes, your enemies, with humility and charity.
The response you want from them, if it comes not from a changed heart but from a knee-jerk of wooden obedience, will be grudging and temporary. People do not persevere in what they do not believe in.
Again, Paul fleshes out the idea. Many of the earliest Christians, likely including St. Luke the physician, were slaves. Paul counsels them to take the long view:
“Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave.” (1 Corinthians 7:21-22).
And, “obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality” (Colossians 3:22-25).
Do these admonitions not reflect perfectly Joseph’s conduct? Thrown into a dungeon and left to languish there for years, he crafted a witness that would save the Egyptians who imprisoned him from a terrible famine.
Sitting in a Roman prison awaiting trial, Paul writes a letter to a certain Philemon, who runs a church in his home. Philemon is the master of an escaped slave named Onesimus, who has made his way to Rome and converted to Christianity through Paul’s witness.
Paul is sending Onesiums back to Philemon and he is doing so confident that Phlemon will “do what is proper.” But notice how Paul’s attitude mirrors that of his Lord: “Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you . . . without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary” (Philemon 8-9, 14).
Nowhere, however, does Paul strike through to the heart of the matter of slavery more piercingly than in his letter to the Romans. Once more we detect the echo of the thoughts of Jesus:
“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (6:16-18).
Beloved, Christians have much to answer for regarding slavery. There is much, too, of which to be proud. Ancient documents reveal that some early churches collected money to buy slaves’ freedom (Ignatius to Polycarp 4:8-10; Shepherd of Hermas 38.10; 50.8). Others indicate that some Christians literally sold themselves into slavery to purchase the freedom of others (1 Clement 54:4-5).
But does the Bible itself not address slavery? Of course it does. It teaches us to love our neighbor and that our neighbor is everyone created in God’s image. If you love God you will seek to imitate His Son and to heed His Holy Spirit who dwells within you. He who enslaves himself to righteousness will never enslave another human being.
We just sang the most popular hymn in the history of the English-speaking church. A slave trader named John Newton wrote it – after he enslaved himself to our Lord’s righteousness and morphed into a leader in the abolition movement.
But as horrific as the institution is, to dwell on its cruelty is to miss the larger point. The cruelest master is not Joseph’s brothers or his Egyptian jailers or Portuguese traffickers or Spanish or English plantation owners in the Americas.
The cruelest master is sin. Christ Jesus went to the cross so we could be free indeed – liberated from our bondage to sin. To Him be the glory. Amen.Posted on: October 30, 2016Ed Fowler