In form, these verses are the standard opening for a letter sent in the first century Mediterranean world, and one might be tempted to dismiss them as containing nothing of particular interest or value. That would be a mistake. In the very first line, Paul identifies himself not just by name, but as a slave of Jesus the King, as an apostle, and as one set apart. “Slave” is particularly relevant as we approach the birth of our Redeemer.
Our English translations usually use the word “servant” instead of “slave”, but the Greek word is “slave”. “Servant” is too mild; servants can choose to serve or not. Paul’s world didn’t know freedom as we experience it, where autonomy and self-determination are taken for granted (and may even be foremost among our values). The vast majority of the population in the first century Roman world was either in slavery or locked into perpetual servitude. As such they couldn’t observe the fine points of Jewish ritual observance and were often forced to cheat or steal or deceive, just to survive. They were “sinners”, not just individually (we are all sinners in that sense), but situationally. They were literal slaves of sin.
Jesus understood that his Father was concerned about the plight of people caught in that situation and He expressed his Father’s concern by healing their illnesses, by assuring them that the kingdom of heaven was theirs, and by eating with them – a powerful expression of solidarity in that culture. One might add that those who look down upon such people, who label them as “sinners”, or shiftless, or unfit, are equally slaves of their own self-righteousness.
What Paul understood was that Jesus’ death had saved us all from this otherwise hopeless situation, not because slavery itself was abolished, but because, in Baptism, we die and are reborn into a new life. That’s why Paul can say, in Chapter 6 of this same letter (which we hear at the Easter Vigil): “. . . one who has died is free from sin.” Slavery ends at death. In the new life we live after Baptism, Jesus has “redeemed” us, in much the same sense as we might redeem a coupon or gift certificate. He has “bought” us from our former master (sin); now we are slaves of Christ. Paul, ourselves – all of us – belong to Christ. While His “yoke is easy” and His “burden, light”, still, slaves we are, slaves of Christ. Having been redeemed, we no longer have to answer to our former master. Now we belong to Christ. As God said at the Transfiguration, “Listen to Him!”
OK, you say. . . Interesting historical background. . . But how does this apply to modern times? To me? Do I feel redeemed? Do I even feel I need to be?
I am drowning in an ocean of self-centeredness – my own and everyone else’s. I have to look out for number one. If I don’t, who will? Do I take that for granted? Is it just the way things are? Lord, rescue me from myself! Rescue me from the numbing contagion – the slavery – of the self-seeking of my world!
Jesus has bought us by His blood – bought us for a life of self-giving, not self-seeking. The celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas in a couple of months is only sentimental self-indulgence unless we grasp both this need to be redeemed and our helplessness to save ourselves. When we do come to that realization, then Christmas, the promise and re-actualization of our redemption, really is something to celebrate.
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