Despite numerous attempts to find in Jesus’ teachings an anti-slavery ethic, Jesus appears to have viewed the institution in ways typical for his time. By all accounts his apocalyptic message neither challenged slavery in the present evil age nor envisioned an egalitarian eschaton. Consider the following.
- Jesus honored the Law of Moses as God’s word to Israel and taught others to obey it (cf. Matthew 23:23). As did all other legal codes of the time, Moses’ Law codified the enslavement of foreigners and natives.
- Jesus rewarded a faithful slave master by healing his valued slave [without correction or rebuke] (Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:2-10).
- In the special L material Jesus assumes some of his disciples are slave masters: “Jesus said to his disciples… ‘Who among you would say to your slave…?'” (Luke 17:7-10). The teaching affirms the widespread assumption that 1) slaves should attend to their master’s desires before their own, and 2) that slaves seeking reward should do more than what they are commanded.1
- Early Christians owned slaves without compunction. Philemon, Mary the mother of John, and Cornelius are three such examples (Philemon 15-16, Acts 12:13, 10:7, cf. Colossians 4:1, Ephesians 6:9).2
The slave-owning God of the parables
The mind behind the parable tradition also assumes the moral rectitude of slavery. Jesus regularly represents God as a slave master,3 righteous Israelites as dutiful slaves, and disobedient Israelites as derelict slaves. As in the story of the noble slave-owning centurion mentioned above, there is no attempt in the parables to subvert or question the institution. Rather, as a just slave master, the God of the parables rewards good slaves and punishes bad slaves. He eviscerates those who take advantage of his absence and elevates those who obey without supervision. That these actions of the master are appropriate is taken for granted.
The moral lessons encoded in these parables thus depend on the shared belief that rebellious slaves—like rebellious sons and rebellious subjects—ought to be castigated for upsetting the hierarchical order put in place by God. Just as it was viewed as right for a mortal to obey (and be punished by) God, it was also viewed as right for a slave to obey (and be punished by) his master (cf. Colossians 3:22, Titus 2:9).
A non-egalitarian kingdom
This hierarchical view of the world exists even within Jesus’ teachings on the coming kingdom. In that imagined political order a great reversal would take place, not a great equalization (cf. Mark 10:31; 43-44). The first in the present age would find themselves last in the age to come. The last, moreover, would find themselves highly exalted above their rivals. Some, those who obeyed Jesus wholeheartedly, would become great in the kingdom of God. Others, those who were lukewarm in their commitment, would become least. Still others would be excluded altogether, shut out in the outer darkness (Matthew 5:19, cf. 11:11, 25:30).
According to Jesus then, God would soon subject the powerful and wicked to the rule of his persecuted and marginalized saints. Faithful Christians, regardless of their social status in this age, would inherit ownership of the world to come. By an act of divine eschatological reversal, slaves who obeyed Jesus (and their earthly masters) would enslave or destroy the powers that be and direct the nations with a rod of iron (cf. Isaiah 14:1-2, 60:12, Luke 19:19). This new political order, while still hierarchical, would operate according to the justice and mercy of Israel’s god (cf. Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15), not the whims of a pagan king.
1—Jesus said to his disciples… “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
2—Wealthy households sometimes entrusted a young female slave (παιδίσκη) to open and shut the door (cf. Acts 12:13, John 18:17).
3—On a couple of occasions Jesus also pictures himself as a slave master in his relationship with his disciples. He has the moral authority to reward and punish his slaves at the eschaton, for instance (Luke 19:11-27, Matthew 24:45-51, cf. 1 Cor 7:22).