Today we have to cut into a difficult but necessary subject: Slavery! There are various forms of slavery and discrimination among different groups of people. But we have to determine if the Bible has the same perspective on slavery as we have. Both the first reading and the Gospel talk about Slavery. It is import for us to determine whether the Bible approves of Slavery? The short answer is NO! And neither should we! We should do everything in our power to overcome it. But we have to fair. There seem to be verses in the Bible that talk about slaves and slavery. For instance today we hear about Sarah who sends Hagar “the slave woman” away. So we have to ask that one question on one point: “what does the Bible mean with slavery and also does the Bible actually condone slavery?”.
The New Testament improves when it comes to Slavery but it still seems to fall far short of that which twenty-first century human rights would expect. But we cannot just pluck the Biblical narrative written in that time and culture and add it into our time and age. That would be exegetical wrong. We need to step back and ask ourselves what are the theological, political, and cultural contexts in which the Old Testament narrative unfolds. In both the Old and New Testaments, the words used to denote slaves did not necessarily carry the same connotations that we associate with slavery today. Only by understanding the biblical texts and the cultures that produced them can we understand what is being referred to in the Bible. Early Christians had to work out their treatment of one another under Roman law. And that law was not like “the land of the free” where you could call out things, let even alone change it. The Christian community was a counter-cultural movement in which social distinctions were overcome by treating each other decently. Jesus is Lord, and masters and slaves were expected to treat each other as beloved brothers and sisters and equal members of the body of Christ.
So just how similar was Israelite slavery to our conception of the institution that bears the same name? Not much. Consider first that Israelite slavery was voluntary. Exodus 21:16 tells us that "Whoever steals a slave and sells the slave, and anyone found in possession of the slave, shall be put to death.” To begin with, it should not be forgotten that the Old Testament has ethical, ceremonial, and social codes for that time and place. Therefore, their application to the present day should not always be considered in literal terms. The social elements of those narratives need not apply to us, and the ceremonial ones are largely fulfilled in the completed work of Christ. We see the first statement on human rights: the alien was to be treated as a citizen. More even, the alien should be loved as one of their own (Leviticus 19:33-34). Even when Hebrew law and custom shared in the common heritage of the ancient world, there is a unique care in God’s Name for those people who by status were not considered people.
The regulation of slavery should therefore be seen as a practical step to deal with the realities of the day resulting from human fall. The situations that lead to alienation among individuals, races, and nations are the result of a fundamental broken relationship between humankind and God. Scripture does reveal that slavery is not ideal, both in Old Testament laws forbidding the enslavement of fellow Israelites. The Bible teaches that the feeling of superiority in general is sin (Philippians 2:1-8)! The abolition of slavery is thus not only permissible by biblical standards, but demanded by biblical principles. Practices like slavery should be abolished because all humans beings are made in the image of God. Paul summons it all up in his letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. On this principle, the Bible addresses the very economic discrimination and favouritism of which slavery is the worst expression. St. James writes: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism”. He puts it more specifically: " for if you have done son, have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”
In both the first and second reading it seems that scripture points to another way! Namely that of overcoming these boundaries and strive for equality. It seems that the Bible take an approach that seems to encourage equality while on the same time not make a moral judgement itself. When Sara wants to send Hagar away for selfish reasons it grieves Abraham. But God tells him to let it be, because he will make a great nation out of Ismael as well. This shows that God doesn’t discriminate and it might even be his purpose that Sara sends Hagar her away, to set her free. “What the devils means for evil, God uses for good”. In the Gospel Jesus tells us that “a slave cannot be above his master, but can be like the teacher’. Again we see that same equality. God want us to treat people equally, even if the society has another take on that. We Christians have to raise our level of awareness and involvement when it comes to social issues. If we fail to do so, we pass these issues into the hands of non-Christians. Many times these non-Christians perform better on issues of social injustice then we as Christians do. And that is not right.
While they have no theological reason to do so, the real tragedy is that we who do have that basis fail to address these issues. We remain largely indifferent and weak. We talk about love and kindness as if that was the only characteristics of God! But God is also justice and righteousness. He wants to love but real love asks sometimes to be tough and confronting as well. May the Lord of Scripture open our eyes to see that God is interested in the redemption of the whole of creation and not just that of some. It is as Paul summons it all up in his letter to the Galatians, namely that there should be no division int he Body of Christ: "for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. In that spirit let us pray that the Holy Spirit enlightens us to transform social inequality to Biblical equality. Amen.