“Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds awake when he arrives. Truly I tell you that he will make himself ready and seat them at table and come and serve them.” (Luke 12:37)
When I try to understand Jesus, I end up looking into his historical and political context.
If I understand his context, I can understand the political and social implications of his words.
It’s important to understand that Jesus’s Palestine was not free.
In a world in the iron grip of slavery and imperialism, Jesus’s teachings loosened the shackles.
Couldn’t Jesus have called down twelve legions of angels and abolished slavery and imperialism by force?
Without changing people’s minds, such force could only be another form of slavery and imperialism.
Force may be necessary eventually, but persuasion comes first.
All change in society begins with persuasion—with an articulated vision of how things could be different.
Jesus spoke a lot about slavery. Slavery was the institution familiar to everyone.
To be clear, slavery is abominable. When Jesus spoke about slavery, he couched moral truths in the terms of an immoral institution.
Jesus did not support slavery, but he used slavery as a point of reference familiar to his audience.
The moral truths he articulated ultimately proved incompatible with slavery.
Jesus said God is our true master. He said slaves should not beat other slaves. And he said true service is characterized by a vigilant and consistent integrity.
In the verse quoted above, Jesus describes a “slavery” characterized by mutual devoted service.
Though Jesus could have condemned slavery outright, he chose the long, slow, reliable path of moral development over the quick, violent, unreliable path of political rebellion.
Jesus appeals to our innate capacity for moral clarity. He said things that would ring true in the consciences of his hearers and begin to wake them up from their fixed ideas about how things must be.
If we understand it, the Spirit of Jesus’s words can be as liberating today as it ever was.