Friday, June 5, 2009

Neglected Passage #9: Luke 17:7-10

In the NRSV, Luke 17:7-10 reads,

"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!'"


This parable is unique to Luke, and one immediately gets the impression it involves the appropriate disposition of disciples regarding obedience. The setting involves a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The parable maintains that doing what God commands amounts simply to duty; as Arland J. Hultgren puts it, "No one, no matter how virtuous or hardworking, can ever put God in his or her debt." Moreover, a disciple's "duty is never done" (The Parables of Jesus, 251).

That interpretation makes sense to me, but this passage fascinates me for other reasons. It suggests important things about the social setting for the Gospel of Luke, a contested issue among interpreters. And it also participates in the broader early Christian conversation concerning slaves and slavery.

As for Luke's social setting, the question has two dimensions. First, what kinds of people did the author have in mind in composing this Gospel? The second question is closely related: what is Luke's message concerning social status?

Some suggest Luke is the Gospel of the poor, speaking primarily to and on behalf of the downtrodden. The theme of social reversal ("God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty" [1:51]; "good news to the poor" [4:18]) figures prominently in Luke. Some interpreters suppose Luke is speaking to a prosperous audience, perhaps even a literal person named Theophilus who paid for the Gospel's composition (1:3; Acts 1:1). But many interpreters, including me, believe that Luke intends an audience of mixed composition, but it addresses the more prosperous with a particularly sharp edge.

This parable suggest just such an audience. It presupposes an audience that easily identifies with a slaveowner. This slaveowner may not be quite "rich." If he were, he'd have different slaves working in the field and serving in the home. (This may press the imagery too far.) But this is a person who can relate to the story.

But the parable also has an edge. It calls the audience to imagine themselves as slaves. In the ancient world slave imagery was hardly attractive to elites, who often described slaves in the most demeaning ways imaginable (J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament, 17-83). In my view, Luke uses this imagery precisely to promote a revaluation of their identity. In Luke's parables, persons of relatively high status sometimes encounter social crises that undermine their relative privilege (the man rescued by the Samaritan in 10:25-37, the elder brother in 15:11-32, the dishonest manager in 16:1-8, and the rich man in 16:19-31). In Luke faithful elites merit no more standing than anyone else.

A second aspect of the passage compels my attention, its participation in early Christian slave discourse. Jesus' parables are full of slave characters. Paul identifies himself as a "slave of Jesus Christ," and Revelation calls believers to identify as Christ's slaves. Several passages, inside the New Testament and beyond, call slaves to obey their masters. So slave discourse plays a significant role in early Christianity.

In this context we must remember how widespread slavery was in the ancient world. Slaves may have composed up to one-third of the Roman Empire's population, as much as half of the inhabitants of Rome itself. Ancient people knew what slaves were. Free persons largely mocked and despised slaves. And slaves themselves? Unless they were lucky enough to draw a plum assignment, their lives were grim at best, likely to be much shorter and more painful than those of the general population.

Yet the New Testament and other early Christian literature also reveal a liberatory trend regarding slavery. Paul did not write Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, or Titus -- the books that enjoin slaves to submit. Rather, Paul instructs slaves to make the best of their condition and to "grab" their freedom if they can (1 Cor 7:20-24). Interpreters dispute what's going on with Philemon and Onesimus, but it seems to me that Paul is calling for Onesimus' manumission. (For a totally different reading, see Harrill, 1-16.) In Christ, Paul proclaims the distinction between slaves and free abolished (Gal 3:27-29).

It's not just Paul. In condemning Rome's exploitative commercial practices, Revelation implicitly condemns the slave trade (18:13). Even 1 Timothy 1:9-10 includes slave traders among the "lawless and disobedient." There's even evidence -- very early evidence -- that some Christians worked actively for the freedom of their enslaved colleagues (Ignatius, to Polycarp 4.8-10; possibly Shepherd of Hermas 38.10; 51.8), even to the point of selling themselves into slavery to purchase the freedom of others (1 Clement 55.4-5).

Everything in this post is subject to dispute. Nevertheless, you rarely hear about Luke 17:7-10, even though it opens the path to important and fascinating questions about the Gospel of Luke and the social shape of early Christianity.

Note: In an earlier post I reflected on 1 Thessalonians 1:5 and the role of religious or mystical experience in the spread of early Christians. That passage would otherwise be on the list.

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