“Who is the faithful and wise slave whom the master will set over his household slaves to give them food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find doing so when he arrives.” (Matthew 24:45-46)
English translations of the Bible often render the Greek word doulos as servant, but that’s inaccurate. The precise meaning is slave.
The economic and social order of the time depended on slavery—so much so, that the idea of abolishing slavery was practically unthinkable.
Slaves generally hoped to buy their own freedom, and sometimes they rebelled to escape slavery. However, there's little evidence that anyone in ancient times imagined a possible society without slavery.
There are ancient records of freed slaves going on to acquire other people as slaves.
All power, violence, and money in society supported slavery. Slavish ways of thinking structured everyone’s hearts and minds.
Jesus chose to enter an enslaved world and speak to enslaved people. We sometimes forget this, and in forgetting it, we forget who Jesus is.
Jesus did what had to be done to liberate the world—I’m not speaking only of spiritual liberation, but of literal legal emancipation. He spoke to a slavish mentality and worked to defeat it with the power of its own logic.
In Matthew, chapter twenty-four, Jesus tells slaves to provide for the needs of their fellow slaves. He also tells slaves in supervisory roles not to beat their subordinates. These are not metaphors. Jesus is speaking literally.
He tells slaves not to contribute to the brutality of slavery, but to care for others.
He tells them they are answerable to God who is their real lord and who will hold them accountable.
This accountability to God was Jesus’s message to all, including slave owners.
Though Jesus didn't directly condemn slavery, the body of his teachings tended to make the institution untenable.
Three centuries later, St. Gregory of Nyssa—who arguably understood the drift of Jesus’s teachings better than anyone who came before—declared for the first time that slavery was sin and blasphemy.
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For more on Gregory of Nyssa’s opposition to slavery, see here.