Today’s Gospel highlights what a different world Jesus and the earliest Christians lived in by comparison with us today. Jesus and Luke’s community unquestionably believed in slavery. In all the Gospels Jesus regularly draws on the image of a slave to make points about duty, respect or responsibility. In other passages Jesus and St Paul advocate for the just treatment of slaves or servants. It was an institution in their world that they never questioned. They never told the slaves to make a bid for freedom. They never told Christian slave owners to set their slaves free.
Like society generally, the Church, for most of its history, followed this line. Much to our shame when the tide rightly turned against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Church was, generally, very slow to be converted to the emancipation movement and take a stand against the colonialism and racism that slavery enshrined. Our movement on the question of slavery is a wonderful study in the development of doctrine. Not all social realities that Jesus assumed in his day continue to be relevant to our world. It took Society 1800 years and the Church a bit longer still to see slavery for what it is – an assault on the children of God – both servant and master. It shows how we have to keep carefully discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit and God’s guidance in the light of new thinking. The image of the slave in today’s Gospel is invoked to underline our response to God’s goodness. It is good to recall that the word "redemption" literally means, "buying back." It comes from the practice in the ancient world where there were two types of slaves - ones who were born or forced into slavery, usually for life, and others who paid off a debt or a crime by becoming a slave, usually for a period of time. The second type of slaves could be set free when someone else paid their debts, or the ransom their master now demanded for them was settled. They would, then, either be the slave of the purchaser, or set free completely. The metaphor came into Christian theology to describe how we, who are enslaved by our destructive behavior, gained a liberator in Christ who entered into a sinful world, subjected himself to its violence and death, to succeed in setting us free. Christ shows us that we do not have to live destructively anymore. Now claimed by the love of Christ, we are no longer slaves, but his friends, indeed through the redeeming work of Christ we have been welcomed into God’s family. Our work for God, then, is totally disproportionate to the gifts we have been given. Holding, as we do, that life, creation, all talents and, in our case, security and peace are fruits of God’s love, Jesus is right to highlight which side of the ledger is more generous. To serve God in the world, in response to his invitation, is a privilege. We share in his creativity, compassion, hospitality and care. And often, through us, others come to know God and make a judgment if Christian faith is sincere. As respondents to many surveys tell us, they may like who Jesus is and his teaching in the Gospel, but the stumbling block for their joining us is the way they see that faith lived out in the Church. May the Eucharist, then, give us a sense of the dignity we have by being called the servants or slaves, friends and family of Jesus Christ the Lord. Richard Leonard, S.J.