‘Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked slave says to himself, “My master is delayed,” and he begins to beat his fellow-slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. – Matthew 24:45-51
When I read today’s Daily Office gospel reading, it was familiar in its opening. Jesus talks about fig trees and how when summer comes, the fruit ripens. That brings memories of Mama’s fig preserves, made from the fruit of a large tree at my aunt and uncle’s farm, brought home and carefully prepared and canned. I loved those preserves.
Then I get to the second coming and how no one knows when it will happen. Not even Jesus himself knew, but surely the time would come, and some would rise to heaven while others would be left behind. Some denominations wrap a great deal of theology around this, but I don’t really think about this very much. There are many more important things to contemplate. I will try to be ready, but I’m not going to stress about it or look for signs and wonders that are said to precede it.
Next comes the part quoted above. I’ve been reading the Bible for years, but this was the first time this passage truly brought me up short. For some reason, I could not read the word “slave” but found myself substituting “employee” or “co-worker” instead. I know that what I am reading refers to the customs of the first century A.D. I can accept that as I try to read the scriptures through the eyes and ears of those times. I can do it most of the time, but not this time. So why is it different now?
I grew up in the South, where slavery is a historical fact, and we cannot change that history no matter what we may want. During my teens, I saw the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and the riots and gradual dismantling of customs and beliefs I grew up with. The church I had chosen (or where God had called me to be) began adjusting just as society and the times changed. It was good to hear sermons about all of us being equal in God’s sight instead of the “us vs. them” I had often heard in my childhood. It took me a long time to stop seeing myself as a flawed sinner who seemed far from God’s grace and love and began to see myself as who I was. Then it was time for me to see others in the same light. We were all God’s beloved children, who would have seen our pictures proudly stuck on the doors of God’s refrigerator.
Lately, there’s been a lot more emphasis on seeing all people as human beings, equal in rights and status. Oh, we still have rich and poor, sick and well, those for whom learning is difficult and those who always seek more and more education. We still have people with different skin colors and cultural traditions. It isn’t uncommon to walk through a grocery store and hear people speaking in native tongues we don’t understand. We hopefully realize that the world is a much smaller place than it used to be, and what happens on the other side of the globe affects us whether we think it should (or would) or not.
Our language is changing as our views change. For many, the King James English of the Bible is almost as foreign as the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek, in which it was first put down on paper. Even more modern translations use phrases we may not like, but we need to read them to understand the culture from which the stories, sayings, and teachings came.
Slavery still exists, and that is a known fact. We hear stories of the sex trade, kidnapped children forced to work instead of being allowed to be children, and teens are recruited into cults and gangs to increase their numbers and solidify their power. Women are still fighting for the right to choose how their body is used. Non-Caucasians struggle to be free of hate speech and fear of being beaten or killed simply because of their skin color or origin. LGBTQ+ want to be able to be open about who they are and who they love. The world wants to be free of warfare and pillage, and people want to live in peace and tranquility instead of terror and desperation.
I know I have to read the word “slave” in this passage, but my mind rejects it even as I realize that slavery is real and present. I can wish, hope, and pray for a time when people will read “slavery” and ask what that means. I doubt I will live long enough to see the total eradication of slavery, but I can pray to see more steps in the right direction. In God’s sight, we are all equal. The sooner we realize that the better off we will be, at least IMVHO.
Image: 18th Century Slave Shackles, from Tamale, Ghana. From the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool, UK. Author: Adam Jones from Kelowna, BC, Canada (2016). Found at Wikimedia Commons.