In the beginning

Column: Early faith offered slaves dignity, but not freedom

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Because of the economy, employers hold more of an upper hand over their employees than before. With the tight labor market, no one wants to have to look for another job. Employees are willing to put up with more than ever.

Two thousand years ago, such was not the case. Most workers were legally owned by their employers. In many cities of the Roman Empire, slaves made up a sizable amount of the population. For example, in the city of Rome itself, the number of slaves has been estimated between 200,000 and 300,000 — one-third of the total population. Some of their owners treated them well; others, not so much. It was common to beat slaves as a punishment. It was even theoretically possible for a slave owner to put his slave to death, although that was rare. After all, the slave was property.

Under the Roman emperors, the legal status of slaves improved somewhat. Abuse and killing of slaves without just cause became a punishable crime. Still, slaves faced many hardships.

This discussion about slavery should help to place Sunday’s second reading — 1 Pt 2: 20b-25 — into context. It comes from a section of the letter addressed to slaves, as an earlier verse makes clear: “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable, but also to those who are perverse” (1 Pt 2:18).

The letter urges patience in the face of unjust conditions. The suffering mentioned in the letter probably en – compasses beatings and other punish – ments that we now would classify as physical abuse, but which were entirely legal at the time. The letter differentiates between those punishments that were merited and those which were not deserved — “when you suffer for doing what is good.”

We now would condemn all those punishments as undeserved and the whole institution of slavery as an unjust condition. The letter does not go that far. It focuses attention upon how the slaves who are Christian should react: namely, with patience, imitating the patience of Christ on the cross.

That advice reflects the usual stance of early Christianity, which did not challenge slavery as an institution. At the same time, Christianity offered slaves a dignity that they could not find elsewhere. Slaves could become priests and deacons of the church.

In the eyes of society, the value of slaves depended upon the service they could render. On the other hand, in the church, the value of slaves depended upon their dignity as sons and daughters of God. That is why the letter urges the slaves to react with patience to their sufferings, as did Jesus, the Son of God, on the cross.

That still sounds like good advice. We ourselves may not be slaves, but we still encounter difficult situations at times, whether in the workplace, at home or in the parking lot. It is always good to react with patience to those situations.

We may also need at times to confront an injustice. Complete passivity may not be appropriate. Even then, the virtue of patience will help us maintain an even keel, and not overreact and slip into revenge.

And we take as our model for patience Jesus Christ on the cross: “When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross.”

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

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