Marianne Manasse, Farm Workers on the Back of a Truck. Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA. Gift of Mr and Mrs Jan G Milner, 1997.3.1. © Estate of Marianne Manasse. by Marianne Manasse ©

Slavery IS Slavery — Matthew 18:21-35

KATHLEEN RUSHTON uncovers the evil of human slavery in her reading of Matthew 18:21-35 and points out how often it is obscured or mistranslated then and in our own times. 

Two areas of interest are converging for me. I am researching slavery in the world of the earliest Christians and the difference this background makes to interpreting Scripture. And I attended “The Tip of the Iceberg” Conference on human slavery in Aotearoa New Zealand recently. Although the slavery is separated by 2,000 years, similarities exist. Slavery and the exploitation of human persons is mainly unseen in biblical scholarship or is sidestepped in translation. Similarly, modern human slavery is unseen and not named for what it is.

Obscured, Sidestepped and Overlooked

The word doulos which means “slave”, is translated as “servant”. Many hold that it makes no difference about the person’s status as long as there is a real superior-subordinate factor involved. And a lot of uncritical appropriation has led to sincere church-talk about so called “servant” leadership which theologises and obscures ancient slavery. Slavery was intrinsically oppressive and maintained only for the benefit of the privileged, the slave owners.

Today’s illicit trade whereby vulnerable human persons are traded as a commodity is human slavery. Men, women and children are bought, sold and exploited. The more familiar term “human trafficking” mostly refers to sexual slavery and suggests crossing borders and immigration/migration. We can be led to think that this happens only in the two-thirds world (countries with the lowest UN Human Development Index). But this exploitation happens in our country — an estimated 800 people are held in human slavery in Aotearoa New Zealand. Further, we are implicated in a global lifestyle which demands cheap clothing, goods, services and food which encourages the use of slave labour. While consumers might protest against the use of pesticides contaminating food, they seldom extend their protests to the people exploited in the supply chain.

Ancient Slavery

Slaves were stock characters in fables and plays, usually portrayed as clever rascals and tricksters. The gospel parables contain similar features to those in the fables of the Life of Aesop and in the comic plays of Plautus. Slaves are portrayed as significant characters. In a festive way, this ancient literature overturns the rigid, clearly defined roles and relationships of the hierarchical systems of Rome. It is unlikely that Graeco-Roman masters would have put up with their own slaves acting out the antics found in these comedies. Audiences, however, admired their devious ways and enjoyed the exaggerations and the threats and beatings were considered hilarious.

The grim reality was that the institution of slavery was everywhere in the Roman Empire. It is estimated that there was one slave to every five free adults and in the city of Rome the ratio was one to three. The Empire was structured on slavery which made the lifestyle of the upper classes possible. Not all societies functioned like that even though for generations slavery had existed. In Palestine, for example, slavery was practised as part of life by both Jews and non-Jews well before Roman rule.

Later, early Christianity did not question this practice. It is well documented that slaves were subjected to brutal punishments including sexual assault, torture, flogging and execution. Jesus’ crucifixion was a form of punishment for slaves. An individual, along with their family, could be enslaved because they were unable to pay their debts. Biblical examples include a man who has stolen oxen or sheep and cannot make restitution, who “shall be sold for the theft” (Ex 22:2). A widow tells of “a creditor [who] has come to take my two children as slaves” (2 Kgs 4:1). Wives and children were regarded as property.

The Parable of the Unjust Slave

Against this background, let us consider a parable which Jesus tells at the end of his fourth discourse (Mt 18) about “the church” (Mt 18:17) as a community of sustaining relationships and practices. As an alternative community, the church is to embody the mercy of God. Disciples are not perfect so conflict is inevitable. Peter asks Jesus how often he must forgive. Jesus’ reply of “seventy-seven times” is illustrated in the ensuing parable where the basileia of the heavens is compared to “a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves”.

Three scenes unfold. In the first (Mt 18:24-27), Jesus’ hearers would have latched onto the exaggeration we miss. “Ten thousand talents” is a vast amount. The largest money unit (1 talent equals about 6,000 denarii) is multiplied by a very large amount. If one denarii was equivalent to a day’s wage for a labourer, John Pilch estimates 10,000 talents would require more than 164,000 years of work, seven days a week! This amount was more than likely the yearly production of all the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. It compares with the huge international debts which today burden the peoples of the developing world.

Being Moved with Compassion

As expected the king resorts to the usual solution — sell the slave, his family and possessions. However, his response to the slave’s appeal is totally unexpected: “Out of pity (splagnizomai) for him, the lord (kyrios) released him and forgave him the debt.” The translations of “out of pity” (NRSV) and “felt so sorry” (New Jerusalem Bible) somewhat miss the mark. The Greek verb comes from splanchna, a plural noun which literally means entrails, bowels or guts and metaphorically means from the depths of one’s being, or the place of heartfelt compassion. This verb connects the king’s response with Jesus who is “moved with compassion” when he sees people as “sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36), sick (Mt 14:14), hungry (Mt 15:32) and blind (Mt 20:34). In another parable, the Samaritan “was moved with compassion” for the wounded man (Lk 10:33).

A role reversal occurs in scene two (Mt 18:28-30). The forgiven slave comes upon a fellow slave literally “seizing him by the throat he choked him” because he owed a small debt of 100 denarii. The latter pleads with the same words which enabled the forgiven slave to receive forgiveness. In contrast to the king, we find: “He refused” and threw the one pleading into prison.

In scene three (Mt 18:31-34), fellow slaves report what happened to the king who then resorts to expected behaviour. The slave who had abused power, and did not extend to another the mercy he had experienced, is handed over to torturers.

Experiencing God’s Mercy

The experience of God’s mercy can change us. The gifts we receive can transform us and make our gifts work for the common good. Forgiveness, though not easy, is presented in this parable in stark form. To forgive “from your heart” (Mt 18:35) can take a long time and mean a long process of prayer and discernment.

Every person can make a positive difference through awareness, conversations and actions.

It was through the actions of a woman moved with compassion when she saw that another woman was upset at a Church service and invited her for a cup of coffee, that a breakthrough came. Saliana, from Fiji, began to tell her story of exploitation. This simple action by a member of a faith community led to the first conviction for human slavery in Aotearoa New Zealand (15 September 2016).

And other actions might include using the ethical fashion guide (See, Louise Carr-Neil TM August 2017: 26) and support initiatives such as the Christchurch City Council’s recent decision to pay the living wage. 

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 219 September 2017: 32-33.