“You have become slaves of righteousness” says Paul in our second reading. The word “slaves” appears four times in that fairly short reading. Slavery is a concept that probably feels quite alien to us, though in fact, according to the UN there are more slaves in the world now than there have ever been , an estimated 21 million . They work in sweatshops, mines, agriculture, domestic service and the sex trade. Some are trafficked far from home; others are enslaved in their own communities. But slavery is something that is officially outlawed and condemned now, so it’s hidden from most people’s view.
That wasn’t the case in Paul’s day. Slavery was an accepted part of life, part of the fabric of society. The great cultures of the ancient world, Greece, Rome, Assyria, Egypt, couldn’t have existed without slaves. No one challenged it. Slaves might have been captured in battle, or sold into slavery, or born as slaves. Some rose to high office and were trusted and loved by their masters and mistresses, but many suffered degrading and harsh experiences, and none were free to live their own lives, or marry whom they chose, or earn their own livings. They belonged to their owners, and, in Roman society, their masters had power of life and death over them. The idea that all people have the right to liberty and self-determination is a very modern one – most of our ancestors would be astonished at it.
It’s important to know that. Sometimes we assume that the people of the past were basically just like us, except that they wore different clothes and didn’t have mobile phones. In some ways that’s true. They felt joy and sorrow, had hopes and dreams, cared about their children and got annoyed with their neighbours just as people do today. But their understanding of the world and how they fitted into it was often profoundly different. They accepted slavery without question. It was the way the world was, and always would be. Slavery was regarded as shameful, but the shame was attached to the slaves, not to their owners. It was their fault, their destiny, their place in the world to be slaves.
I’ve laboured that point a bit, because I think it’s important we have it in mind when we hear Paul’s words. When the Christians in Rome read the letter he had sent them, they knew what he was talking about from the inside, because they saw slavery all around them. Some of them almost certainly were slaves. Others were slave-owners. All would be familiar with the sight of slaves, and with the fear of falling in to slavery, and the shame associated with it. So, when Paul uses the word “slaves” he knows that it will set up powerful resonances in people’s mind.
But, of course, Paul isn’t talking about literal slavery in the passage we heard at all. He is talking about internal slavery if you like, the slavery that binds our hearts and minds. He is pointing out to a society that despised slaves, and to slaves who despised themselves, that in some ways we are all enslaved. The only question is, what or who are we enslaved to. As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
We may like to think we are all free spirits, independent minded, that we can do what we please with our lives, but it’s not true. All of us, in some ways, however small, have restrictions on our lives, commitments we can’t shirk, ties we can’t break, burdens we have to bear.
Some of those things may feel, and be, profoundly negative. We may feel enslaved by an illness or disability – something we didn’t choose and can’t escape. We may be enslaved by addiction to something – gambling, alcohol, spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need because it makes us feel momentarily better. We may be locked into patterns of behaviour that are harmful and destructive. We may be enslaved by the opinions of others; we can’t be the people we want to be because we’re afraid they’ll disapprove, that they’ll gossip about us at the school gates, or write snarky things on social media. We may feel enslaved by the expectation that we will climb the social ladder, push ahead at work, get that promotion, even if we really don’t want to. That’s what Paul means when he talks of us being “enslaved to sin”.
But the opposite of that slavery isn’t, as we might expect, freedom to do whatever we want. Instead, Paul talks about us becoming “slaves to righteousness” and “enslaved to God.” What does that mean?
He’s not thinking of God as some kind of brutal overlord, ready to crack the whip if we slack off or get things wrong. He doesn’t mean us, either, to adopt an unthinking, unquestioning faith. What Paul means is that our relationship with God should be one that is whole-hearted, touching the whole of our lives. “Let the Gospel and its values have a claim on you”, he is saying, “on the way you live, the way you behave to others, the way you work and shop and play. Let it shape your life and change you”. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul,with all your strength and with all your mind,” says the Bible. Being “enslaved to God” means living that out, day by day, week by week. Maybe we think Paul is pushing his analogy too far by calling it slavery – it is, of course, our choice to follow him, and slaves don’t have a choice, but it’s his analogy, not mine. And he uses it deliberately to emphasize the totality of the commitment he is talking about, a positive, joyful commitment, but one which should have profound consequences for our daily lives.
We probably all have positive commitments like that already. We may not call them slavery, but we make choices which we know will bring restrictions as well as joy. I am very glad to be tied to Philip by the bonds of marriage, and to have two lovely children who will always be there in my heart and mind, even if they aren’t physically close by. These things don’t feel like slavery at all – if they did there would be something badly wrong! They feel like freedom, but there’s a commitment involved in any family relationship. Our families have a justifiable claim on our time, our attention, our money. We’re not free just to do what we want – to move house or go on holiday, for example - without consulting them or considering the impact it will have on them.
Jobs and voluntary commitments may also involve a sacrifice of certain freedoms. If we’re lucky, we may be doing jobs we have freely chosen, but even in the best job there’ll be moments when we just wish we could take off for the day, or the week- or forever - instead of turning up for work.
All of us in some ways, then, both positively and negatively “serve somebody”, as Dylan said. Or as St Paul puts it “ Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” Our choices and commitments can be destructive or constructive, deathly or live-giving – to ourselves and to those around us. We need to choose wisely, to let the right things and people have a claim on our time.
In the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that it is the “little ones” who should come first, the ones who have no voice and no power. We may look at them and think they are nothing to do with us, that it’s not our job to slake their thirst, whether that is for water, or justice, or a helping hand, or a kind word, but we are wrong. If we belong to God, if we say we are part of his family, then all other people are our brothers and sisters.
What does this look like in practice, when people are living a life of committed love, recognising their responsibilities to God and one another? It looks like the firefighters who ran into Grenfell Tower again and again to rescue people, when everyone else was running out of it. It looks like the churches and the mosques and other community organisations who immediately swung into action to care for the survivors – they didn’t know what they were doing, but they knew they needed to do something. It was their job. It looks like the policeman, Wayne Marques, who I saw interviewed on the television news this week. He fought off the terrorists at Borough Market armed just with a baton, and was badly injured himself, so that he could buy time for others to escape.
But it also looks like those who volunteer day by day in less dramatic ways to help in their communities , who staff the charity shops, befriend those going through tough times, or check in on a frail neighbour. It looks like those who speak out at work when they see something unjust happening, or who campaign for those at the bottom of the heap. Closer to home, it looks like the many people here who care for this church, and build up its congregation, so that we can comfort those who come here in times of sadness, and rejoice with those who celebrating. We may just give a cup of cold water, but that says to people, “you matter to me.” It may seem odd to call these things slavery, but doing them takes commitment and the sacrifice of some of our freedom, our time and our energy. Not much that’s worth doing is going to be easy or quick or painless.
So, what are you enslaved to today? What holds you in its thrall? For all of us, there will be a mixture of answers. There may be enslavements which we need freeing from, things that crush our souls and drag us down. Let’s pray for deliverance from them, for God’s grace to find the freedom he wants for us. But there may also be ties that we rejoice in, commitments that are life-giving and good, things we are called to. Let’s pray for strength to fulfil them, to embrace them whole-heartedly so we can live out our commitment to God, to one another, and to his life-giving Gospel.