Not being enslaved by life as advertised by Simon Barrow

Not being enslaved by life as advertised by Simon Barrow

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
2 Dec 2006
One of the key sacraments of cultural life in early twenty-first century Britain is ‘the makeover’. TV shows love it, high street stores bank on it, and people who feel otherwise rotten about themselves long for it – a new look, a new style and a new image.

But while accessories (clothes, homes, gadgets, nips and tucks) are sold to us as symbols of newfound freedom, often they just mark us out as brand-loyal. They are fashioned, traded and adjudicated by a system of exchange-values shaped by those with the biggest leverage in the marketplace.

Even rebellion can be co-opted into the makeover economy. Remember punk in the late ‘70s? It started out as a protest against received norms, and within a short period of time it had become anew set of social rules and a new line in fashionable products.

Those who share in the worship of the church are, believe it or not, raising profound questions about the anxiety that lies behind a consumer-based makeover mentality.

Through ritual expression and scriptural subversion they are imperilling the self-image given to then through a marketised culture - allowing their identity to be reshaped as followers of Jesus, instead. Well, they are if what is going on in church is any good.

In St Matthew’s Gospel (10.25b), Jesus is recorded as declaring: “The disciple should be like the teacher, and the servant like the master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul [prince of devils], how much more will they malign those of his household?”

The purpose of this tough passage is to provide what these days we might call a ‘product warning’ about the Gospel. It offers an unsentimental picture of what is at stake in belonging to Jesus’ alternative community, the costs it entails, and the confrontations it will create – not least among ‘the religious’.

What Jesus is saying, in essence, is that if we are to be freed from the kind of slavery that masks itself as normality in the world at large, we need to ‘made over’ into a community held together by a very different self-understanding to that which sells itself as instant freedom.

This is dangerous territory. In order to grasp what he’s getting at, we need first to look back at the society behind the text, and to explore some calamitous misunderstandings of a Gospel which announces that “service is perfect liberty” (to use St Paul’s phrase).

Christian faith was itself born into an age of slavery, that of the Roman Empire. It has been estimated that there were 60 million enforced labourers and household slaves across the Emperor’s domain at the time of Jesus. A good percentage of a much smaller known world population, in other words.

As with the debt-slavery of many nations today, captivity in first century Palestine was as much economic as it was political. Alongside conscription, the unsupportable newborns of poor families were picked up as slaves (foundlings). Freeborn people also sold themselves into long-term servitude because of un-payable obligations taken on to survive. And the Empire generally fed itself on cheap labour.

Moreover, the individual slave was wholly dependent upon the status and disposition of the master. This is the immediate backdrop to Jesus’ remarks in Matthew. The Roman system treated slaves as non-citizens with no legal standing. The Greek tradition saw them as inferior and unworthy.

Meanwhile the whole Jewish people were subject to harsh Imperial rule. Yet at the same time they also employed slavery in the running of the Jerusalem Temple and in controlling some disenfranchised gentiles. So the slave mentality was all encompassing. How, then, did Jesus respond to it, and what was his alternative?

First, it seems that he bypassed those considerable parts of his own religious tradition that justified slavery as a divinely sanctioned right of punishment and expropriation– in Exodus, Leviticus and Judges/Joshua, for example.

It has been said that he was silent on the matter of slavery as a political institution, but his own practice declared where he stood. And his identification with the prophets placed him in tension with kingly politics.

Instead, Jesus says that the pupil should be alike to the teacher, and the servant alike to the master. It isn’t a matter of superior or inferior. It’s about refiguring conventional relations. Indeed, curiously for some of his listeners perhaps, he begins by pointing out – in the face of those shocked that his followers broke the restrictive rules of table-fellowship – that slaves are not actually superior to their masters. Just in case anyone had got the wrong idea about all this levelling!

By paralleling the servant-master relationship with the disciple-rabbi one, Jesus was, significantly, reminding his hearers that enforced servitude was actually frowned on by another dimension of Jewish faith (recorded in Leviticus 25.55), one that demanded mutuality among the people under the rule of the God who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. (Sadly they didn’t extend this ethic beyond their tribal boundaries, but it was a start).

Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus radicalises his alternative vision by declaring that in the household where people are kindred with God they will not lord-it over one another. “It shall not be so among you”. He also blesses the cursed, touches the unclean, and takes upon himself the yoke of slavery that had been imposed on them.

It is in this context that the hard consequences of Jesus’ much more than skin-deep makeover start to come into view. We are all in this together, he says. But watch out. If they call me, your leader, Beelezebul (prince of devils) for healing the sick and sharing food with outcasts, imagine what they’ll say to you? Why the whole household will be considered perverted.

The name Beelezebul, we should note, seems to be the New Testament’s preserved word for the great Baal of Syria, ‘the Lord of the Lofty Mansion’ as one rendition has it. Much more than some trivial local deity, Baal is the archetypal traditional slave owner – and therefore the opposite of who Jesus, God’s person, turns out to be.

But some sections of Jesus’ traditional community seemed unable to distinguish the suffering servant’s code of life from the Baal’s code of death. They condemned Jesus’ rule-breaking healthcare system that gave priority to those with no authorised status in Temple religion. Instead, it seems, they wanted to uphold an interpretation of the Law that maintained their own power and kept others in a condition of servility.

For this reason, Jesus warns would-be followers that his kind of kinship will bring division – even setting family against family. Foes of God’s table-tuning new order are found deep in the household that is called to model it, he says. There can be no easy peace in the face of such enmity. The faithful are those prepared to share the burden of the cross with Jesus, not dump it on others. This involves sacrifice. Crucifixion, remember, is the punishment of a slave-owning system against those who defy it.

The glory of the Gospel is the possibility of a community redeemed from enslavement to the world by the voluntary submission of baptism (as Paul reminds us). In the act of being received into Christ’s death and resurrection we are changed into people who can reclaim Hagar’s rejected son as a source of blessing in his own right (not simply as an incidental offshoot of Abraham). We become persons whose identity is forged through redeemed relationships of costly service rather than worldly domination.

The abiding tragedy in all this, however, is that Christians often prefer the security of the old master-slave pattern, and will fight vigorously to preserve an understanding of God as the one who upholds it, not noticing or caring about its victims ‘outside the gate’ – even though Jesus is there with them.

That is certainly true in Christian history, where Matthew 10. 24-25 (and many other verses in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures) have been used by self-proclaimed Bible-believers to justify the horrors of actual slavery for some eighteen centuries. Meanwhile key figures in the abolitionist movement were portrayed as undermining biblical faith for refusing a surface interpretation that seemed to them to endorse the slave system. (1)

Aware of the power of those who use an inflexible rendering of the tradition to shore up their own position at the expense what the Gospel calls the last, the least and the lost, Jesus told his followers (in Matthew 16) to watch out for the yeast of the Sadducees and the Pharisees – the growth agent of the powerful. (In St Mark it is the yeast of Herod’s party, highlighting the collusion between the religious and political systems.)

Instead Jesus invited people into small gatherings of the odd – bound together by forgiveness, enemy-loving, foot-washing, costly service, anti-discriminatory meal-sharing and other counter-cultural practices which are far from easy in a world that regards them either as weak or subversive.

Some 20 years after Jesus’ Passion, in a city in Syria, Jews and pagans (the people originally shaped by Baal) were eating together on a regular basis. A fresh experience of God through each other had led those men and women to new patterns of behaviour and a different sense of identity. Paul approvingly describes the makeover of those Christians in Antioch in his Letter to the Galatians. (2)

Not surprisingly what was happening proved a scandal to the most conservative elements in the church. You will recall that delegations were sent from Jerusalem asking Paul, and the Christian communities he was encouraging, to desist from such plainly unscriptural actions.

Paul knew that the Gospel was alive in this changed behaviour, but he had scant biblical warrant for his decision to support mixed dining with pagans. Our Gospels were not available at that time. Jesus’ radical table fellowship had not extended beyond his own people, so the argument would certainly have been that this did not overturn the wider restrictions of the tradition.

So Paul’s opponents appeared to have all the best arguments from tradition and scripture. But the Apostle was sure that the experience of God among pagans turning to Jesus Christ matched what he and the Jewish Christians had experienced. This was God’s transforming work, and it was not to be denied.

What this illustrates is that the alternative to the kind of Christian conservatism that would restrict the power of God in the name of a superficial orthodoxy is not a rejection of the tradition, but a re-appropriation of it at a much deeper level, as a lived reality founded on the economy of the Spirit.

In facing this challenge maybe we Christians could begin by asking ourselves how we might give further practical expression to what I would call ‘the strange new peoplehood of God’ which Jesus generates in the presence of those who identify with him – and which for the early Christians proved an alternative source of growth in the face of a culture of conformity. For it is this that lies at the heart of the calling of the Gospel.

NOTES

This article is adapted from a sermon first preached at St Stephen’s, Exeter.

1. It is hard not to see a parallel with the churches’ current turmoil over human sexuality, where ‘the plain teaching of scripture’ is being used as a blunderbuss in the face of deeper interpretations of the transformed meaning and impact of the Gospel.

2. I am grateful to Christopher Rowland of the University of Oxford for reminding me about this connection. My four paragraphs on Antioch are reworked from his in an article he wrote for The Guardian newspaper in 2003. See also: Seeking a better way together.

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