Sermon for Evensong at Septuagesima, 27th January 2013
1 Corinthians 7:17-24 – Putting up with Slavery

This Sunday, the third Sunday before Lent, has historically been known in the church as Septuagesima Sunday. It’s from the Latin for 70, septuaginta, and it means a Sunday about 70 days before Easter. It also begins the three weeks before Lent starts, for which an old name was Shrovetide. The idea is that we begin to move away from the jollifications of Christmas towards the self-denial of Lent.

But really I don’t want to talk much about that pre-Lent season tonight. I want to say a few words instead about what might seem to be a rather challenging part of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he talks about putting up with your lot in life, and specifically, putting up with being a slave.

If afterwards you have a look at 1 Corinthians chapter 7, you will see that, each side of the passage which was our lesson tonight, there are some tough things which St Paul also said about love, sex, marriage – and on remaining unmarried, or perhaps on being a ‘perpetual bachelor’.

So you’ll see that I’m quite grateful, as a preacher, to have navigated my way through this tricky channel into relatively calm waters where the church is not currently engaged in huge internal battles. Nevertheless even though I am going to give you a break from talking endlessly about gay marriage and stuff like that, there is still something which we ought to say, about slavery. A slave is defined by Aristotle as someone who does not belong to himself, but to someone else. (Aristotle, Politics, 1.1254a14).

If you read tonight’s lesson again afterwards, it makes some difference which translation you read. Tonight we read from the NRSV, and that makes St Paul sound remarkably complacent about slavery. Verse 21 says,

‘Were you a slave when you were called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.’

The King James, on the other hand, says, ‘Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.’

Former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, (‘N.T. Wright’) translates that verse as,
‘Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t worry about it. (But if you get the chance of freedom, seize it!) [Wright, N.T., 2003, Paul for Everyone – 1 Corinthians, London, SPCK, p.88]

Having looked at the Greek, they’re all possible translations, but I think I prefer Tom Wright’s version, which expresses what the King James says, in modern English. ‘…if thou mayest be made free, use it rather’ means, ‘seize the opportunity’.

People refer to this passage and say that St Paul supported the idea of slavery, or at least didn’t seem to be particularly worried about it. But just as in so many other passages, the Bible reflects the social mores of the time. And at that time, in the Roman Empire, slavery was a big fact of life. It’s generally reckoned that one third of the population were slaves.

The other place in St Paul’s letters where slavery comes up is in the letter to Philemon where St Paul writes about Onesimus, who may have been Philemon’s slave. Paul pleads that Philemon should take Onesimus back ‘for ever, no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave, a beloved brother.'(Philemon v16)

The context of all this, not only St Paul’s discussion about slavery, but also what he says about whether people should be circumcised or not, earlier on in our lesson, together with his teaching about whether people ought to get married if they’re single, is that these passages were all written in the light of Paul’s belief that the end of the world was just round the corner. All the early Christians believed that. What’s the point in getting married if everything is going to come to an end next week?

However, whatever the truth about the end of the world, St Paul says in his letter to the Galatians that he believes that the coming of Jesus has changed all the previous relationships, so that things which used to make a difference are no longer significant. So there’s no distinction between men and women, Jew and Greek, slave and free. (Galatians 3:28). All these distinctions have become trivial in the light of the coming of Christ, in the light of God showing his hand on earth, showing that he definitely cares for us. So St Paul takes the line that none of these things are particularly important. You should just make the best of things, from whatever position you find yourself in when you first come to Christ.

We now realise that the early Christians were mistaken. The Apocalypse has not yet happened. So in fact human life has carried on, people have married and had children and got on with their lives, for the last 2,000 years. But we have changed our attitude to slavery. Perhaps it’s a natural consequence of the basic situation that Paul was pointing out, namely that none of the distinctions, that people used to set such store by, now mean anything at all.

So ultimately, there is no distinction between slave and free, in anything that matters. People have come round to the view, in civilised society at least, that it is no longer right for one person to own another person, to buy and sell them as though they were things rather than people.

But I just want to stop there. Because, I’m not sure how true it is for us all happily to say that slavery has been abolished. If you remember the terrible case of the maid who was beheaded recently in Saudi Arabia: that poor woman, and apparently thousands like her, are, in real terms, slaves. They have no passports, they have no money of their own, they’re not paid, they’re simply put up in their masters’ and mistresses’ houses: they have no meaningful life of their own. Indeed, effectively, their masters and mistresses have the power of life or death over them.

That’s in Saudi Arabia. There are also dreadful cases much nearer home, again involving people from poor countries coming to work, sometimes even in this country. You will remember the terrible case of the Chinese people employed as cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay who were drowned by a swiftly incoming tide, because nobody could communicate with them to tell them to come back to safety. Then there was a recent case involving scrap dealers who had kept a family in subjection in conditions amounting to slavery here in England for many years.

We do have laws against this kind of thing, and the fact that it still happens is not a criticism of the law, but just simply an illustration of how evil some people are. I also want to suggest to you that these most dramatic types of slavery may finally be being eradicated, but that there is another kind of slavery, which is very prevalent in this country, and which as Christians I think we ought to consider.

That is what used to be referred to as ‘wage slavery’. We are now in a situation where I expect a number of us here in this congregation have seen our children – and others here are those children – growing up, going through university and getting jobs in the professions or in banking or in major companies. And we give thanks and congratulate them, and say how well they have done. But then the reality is that in return for what are often very generous salaries, our children have no life, at least until their mid-30s.

They’re required to work seemingly endless hours. Typically one of the things that happens when they join is that they are required to sign a waiver, consenting to their employer not being bound by the Working Time Directive, and they work 15- 16-hour days, 6, sometimes 7 days a week. Admittedly they do this for what are often enormous salaries.

But they have no time to spend it. You can see the results of this in the latest statistics which were reported in the newspapers. Many, many more parents are having their first children when they are in their 30s. They have no time before then. They are so controlled, by what is really wage slavery. They are no longer their own people, but they belong to the major law firm, or to the bank, or to the consulting company, or to the major industrial concern that they work for.

They’re so defined by their occupation that they will accept this almost complete loss of their own rights to live as a human being, in return for the status that comes with being an employee of that respected employer, and receiving very generous rewards. Not only is this bad for the individuals concerned – it can’t be right to go from age 25, say, to age 35, simply going to work, as some kind of highly-skilled automaton – but also it perpetuates divisions in society.

These wage slaves are like the slaves who belonged to the highest echelons of society in the Roman Empire. They are themselves highly educated, comfortably housed, very secure in material terms, just as some of the slaves in Ancient Rome were, when they were owned by the leading members of the Senate and the aristocracy.

But the fact that the law allows employers to exploit these brilliant young people so brutally means that others, who are perhaps not quite so brilliant, don’t have a look-in. There are fewer jobs and fewer chances than there would be if, instead of campaigning to water down employment protection even more, the government looked at ways of spreading out the work which these companies do, for very high rewards, so that more people are employed and more people have chances in life. Then the wage slaves might be able to go home at a reasonable hour and discover that they had families, and beautiful places to live, and talents, which could be used not only for making money.

As Paul says, the only sense in which one ought to be a slave is in the sense that one belongs to God. Jesus paid the price for us, the highest price. We belong to him. As St. Paul says, ‘You were bought with a price. Do not become slaves of human masters.’