1900 years ago a young immigrant worker in the Asia province of Rome was struggling to feed his family. His children were hungry, and his wife had died of a painful disease. He worked long hours as a laborer, and his living conditions were squalid. Then, as he walked home from work, he was accosted by bandits, and beaten, with his earnings for the week stolen. He could not go to work the next day, Because of this, he had no money to buy food for his kids, and he lost his job. His children, already undernourished, began to die of starvation.
In desperation, he went to the local slave market and sold himself and his children into slavery.
He stood on the auction block and watched as slave owners bid unenthusiastically for a broken down man and his children who were too young to work productively. Finally, one gruff looking older man outbid the others, and he and his children were marked as slaves and meekly and dejectedly followed the man home. The man was rich, and his home spacious and beautiful. According to Roman law, the young man and his children could be beaten or even killed for disobedience, and he faced a life of hardship and slavery for himself and his children.
But when he arrived at the home of the rich man, he found out the man was a Christian. He was given meaningful work to do, and his children were well fed and cared for. Over time, he developed a close friendship with the rich man and was treated like family. Eventually, he and his children received an inheritance and were blessed with prosperity. He discovered in very real and immediate terms what it was to be “bought with a price”.
There is a lot of talk of slavery in the ongoing discussion of systemic racism. As well there should be, because slavery is a horrible practice, and in our country was a reprehensible institution that had a devastating impact on millions of lives, not just on those were were slaves at the time, but on all associated with the slaving business. John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace”, was a slave trader who chronicled his journey into freedom in Christ in this song. He became an abolitionist, and his song became an anthem of those in the cause against slavery and racism, as well as a moving song about our own journey into the grace of God. Newton had personal experience with what it meant to be a slave of the system, even though he was on the “winning side”.
American slavery was founded on the horrible idea of one human being owned by another, but was made far worse than the ancient institution of slavery because of the violent kidnapping of African-American peoples from their homes to the plantation, and because, unlike the historical precedent, it was based on race, not just economic or potiical circumstance. This made it possible to enslave, not just individuals, but an entire people. Laws were made that made it easy to identify a slave… by the color of their skin. Even after slavery, institutions like segregation and apartheid continued the economic and physical violence into our modern age.
I remember segregation clearly in my lifetime. When I became aware of this as a small child, I was fortunate to be brought up in a home in the 50’s, which was rare at that time, where the very idea of racism was anathema and in which our highest value was that every human being is unique and valuable. I was horrified by the violence and injustice as a child and as a teenager I personally fought for civil rights and participated in demonstrations. I believe all Christians are obligated to stand up for the rights of the modern day victims of this evil, and to treat those victims (and all of our neighbors) with love.
However, the truth is, and I believe the Bible teaches, that we all live in a world of slavery. Most of the world’s population throughout history have been poor, and the poor have been “owned”, oppressed, and driven by violence and hardship by the rich few. We are all slaves to sin, slaves to sickness, slaves to suffering, slaves to economic circumstances, and slaves to our environment and upbringing.
Adam and Eve were tempted by the idea of “true freedom”: that they could be “like God”, being their own judge of right and wrong for their lives. Satan’s sin was the same, for he wanted to be “like the Most High”. In fact, we are more like the young father in the story. We are in the midst of a great spiritual battle, and we frequently have to choose, not to become our own masters, but whom we will serve. Do we serve sin and the flesh? Or are we willing to be “bought with a price”, not by a good man, like the owner in the story, but by the Living God, who paid a terrible price to rescue us from real slavery to death, sin, and our own broken and fallen flesh.
And so, what then shall we do, having been rescued from the grave, and our own twisted desires and the consequences of acting on those desires?
We all have pain and suffering. We all have sickness. We all suffer from lack of respect and lack of love from those around us. We all are victims of the fallen actions of others. We all face physical death. We all ache for our children or family members who are suffering from these things as well. We all get mad when those near us don’t understand us or lash out at us from their own position of pain.
Do we act like slaves to that old lie that we are “doing our own thing”? Who is our master now? Are we on the throne of our own lives? How do we feel about the Father? How did that young father feel about the man who paid his own money to buy him out of his misery and place him in a place of safety and provision?
We as followers of Christ certainly live in a life surrounded by pain and suffering, but we also have joy and we have His great and precious promises. We have the gift of eternal life. We have a loving Father who constantly looks out for us and loves us. While we may ask Him why we pass through this current suffering, we also know that all such is a momentary light affliction. Yes, our only option besides staying in our old life of slavery is another kind of “slavery”. We are “bondservants of Christ”. We are not masters of our fate or captains of our souls. We have a new Master, one who is good and loving and who cares for us, and one who paid a terrible price to purchase us out of that poverty and sickness into a new life.
This is what I think of when I am tempted to follow my flesh, or to make others treat me with “more respect”, or when I want something I cannot or should not have. I am so grateful for the blessings I have, and I want to live a life worthy of the gift of life I have received.