Becoming a Slave to the Master at Home, at Work, and in the Community
“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, …” This is how the Apostle Paul introduces himself at the beginning of his letter to the Romans. What a strange metaphor. We know there are people in slavery today but our modern democratic societies don’t have institutionalized slavery. This ancient concept is foreign to us. What are we to make of it?
The New Testament world was deeply rooted in the Greek and Roman cultures, but these two cultures differed in their views of slavery. Dr. J. Albert Harrill, in his book, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions, says the Greeks believed slaves to be automatons, a body with no innermost self, in need of constant direction.
But the Romans believed slaves had a mind of their own and the objective was to conform the slave’s mind to the mind of the master.
Harrill tells of a popular Roman comedy called The Life of Aesop. Aesop is a slave belonging to a man named Xanthos. Xanthos becomes exasperated with Aesop’s mischievous disobedience and how he is always justifying his misdeeds as mere misunderstandings of Xanthos’ commands. Xanthos commands Aesop to do only what he is specifically told. So Aesop begins taking Xanthos’ commands in painfully literal ways, leading to several humorous outcomes as the household descends into chaos.
The moral is that the master who fails to appreciate that the slave has an innermost self in need of cultivation is asking for trouble. The Romans believed slaves indeed had an innermost self and that it needed to be molded.
Two Greek words in the original language of our New Testaments, doulos and diakonos, are often translated as “servant.” Diakonos literally means someone who waits on tables. Have you ever been to banquet at a ritzy restaurant with servers standing at attention at the edge of the room? As the evening progresses, entrees appear, empty dishes disappear, and glasses are continuously filled. It is usually done without a spoken word. The servers are anticipating what the diners need without direction. So it is with a servant of God – in our work, we are to become so attuned to what God wants that we are able to do what the Master would want us to do. Good servants have the “mind of Christ.”
Doulos has the same connotations. In ancient Roman society, a slave could often have great responsibility. The head of the large Roman household often did not manage the affairs of his own estate. He would be absent for months at a time. He left management in the hands of a “household manager,” or “steward.”
This steward was often a slave, but one who rose to his position, not because he was so great at following instructions, but because he had so thoroughly internalized the mind of his master that he could anticipate what was needed, even in the master’s absence.
These two overlapping metaphors - the servant and the household manager - are common in the teachings of Jesus and Paul about our responsibility toward God. They say that a Christian consciously and deliberately becomes a slave to God.
Thankfully, the slave metaphor is not the only metaphor Scripture gives for our relationship to God. We are children of God, brothers and sisters to each other and to Christ, priests in God’s holy temple, and more.
And we must remember that our desire to have the mind of the Master should not come from a place of fear but in grateful devotion to the One who loves us like no other.
But the slave metaphor offers critical insights into how God expects us to go about our day.
How can we, in each and every day, whether at home, at work, or in the community, cultivate an intuitive grasp of what the Master needs from us in each and every circumstance?