“Remember that you were a slave!” On Riches and Status (Ninth Sunday of Luke)

Readings: Ephesians 4:1-7; Luke 12:16-21; Deuteronomy 15:11-15; 16:11-12; 24:14-22

When I describe my formation in the Salvation Army as a youngster (I was the fourth generation of two families that were saved from degradation by this para-church group!), I like to say, using a Newfoundland expression, “It’s a good place to be from!” Membership in this activist faith community meant that, even in our mostly middle-income “corps” (parish), we were not strangers to those who were less fortunate. As a child I helped my mom distribute “sunshine bags” at Christmas to the poorer of Toronto, and frequently among us in Sunday worship were those who looked different, smelled differently, dressed differently, and spoke differently. Visits to hospitals, prisons, and various “homes” for the unwed, or those who had abused substances, or those on probation, were commonplace for our teen group. After my third year of college, I took a summer job as a teacher of office practices (a stretch for a Humanities major!), located in a rather grubby downtown public housing complex. This program was meant to help young women re-entering the work-force: I was pretty much on my own, helping them with not only the formatting of letters and daily hygiene, but living with them as my students experienced severe emergencies at home and in the community. All this early experience has given to me a wonderful gift— ease of concourse and a better understanding of those not as fortunate as I was. I myself was from a socially stable family, comfortable (though not opulent) and academically inclined, but came to be friends with those from a different context. I think this is a good place “to be from,” as it taught me gratitude and opened my eyes to a larger world than my secure suburban home.

Our Scripture readings for this week’s Divine Liturgy also direct us to remember whence we have come. Both of them call us to recognize what is truly important in life, and each of them end with a memorable phrase that we do well to treasure. The passage from the epistle reminds us that though we come from different backgrounds, and have been given different gifts, each of us should be humble and gentle, for we are all one:

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4:1-7)

And Luke 12:16-21 tells us that memorable story of the rich man who did not remember his lowly beginnings, and who only cared for protecting his increasing hoard of wealth. More than that, he had forgotten the Lord, from whom all good things come:

Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater ones, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Taken together, our two readings give us insight into how, as Christians, we should deal with wealth and poverty, and what we should think about differences in gifting and position. These themes take on a cruciform shape as we look at them in the light of Christ: because God the Son has come, there is no male and female, no slave or free; because of the Incarnation, we know that we are destined for riches far greater than earthly treasures; because of Jesus’ humility, the apostle can call himself a “prisoner” for Christ and ask us to imitate him. Such regard for the poor and humility, however, these are not brand new teachings: God prepared his people for instruction on these things even in the old covenant. Because the histories of the Hebrews, and then of Israel, are vivid, we can better picture our own situation: we too, were rescued from the slavery of a fallen life; we too are on pilgrimage to the Holy Promised Land, the country prepared for us; we too, have come from somewhere, and are following Christ to our destination. In the Old Testament, especially in the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are reminded to consider always where they have come from! Not only were the patriarchs mere wandering nomads, but also the Hebrew people had gone through a period of slavery in Egypt, and it was out of that degradation that the true God had called them, through Moses. Listen for the constant refrain in these three passages:

For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.
“If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.
And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed;
you shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your wine press; as the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him.
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. (Deut. 15:11-15 RSV)

You shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your son and your daughter, your manservant and your maidservant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place which the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there.
You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes. (Deut. 16:11-12 RSV)

“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns;
you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the LORD, and it be sin in you.
“The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.
“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge;
but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
“When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this. (Deut. 24:14-22 RSV)

There will always be poor—and don’t just get used to it, but remember where you have come from! Remember your low degree as a slave in Egypt, and listen to God’s commands to be just. Help those less fortunate. If someone is in great debt to you, you may only keep that person working for you for six years—the seventh you must allow that person to go free, not keep them as a slave for life. Also, you must start that person off in his or her life of liberty! Remember God blessed you, and bless that person in the same way!

During a celebration, even those who are strangers must be made welcome. Come to worship God, and invite all those around you, remembering that YOU were a stranger, indeed a slave, in Egypt.
The poor who work for you must not be oppressed, whether they are of your race, or from outside: give them their salary promptly, do not punish children for what the father has done, and be just when you make decisions for the poor. Remember your time in Egypt! In fact, deliberately leave part of your goods so that they can get what they need without begging from you in a demeaning way. The truly poor need such good things, and all your wealth comes from God, after all—Remember how it was for you in Egypt!

These principles go beyond justice, directing the people to mercy and compassion—and the call to mercy is not simply an objective thing. God’s call to mercy is rather grounded in an appeal to empathy: the slave and the poor share humanity with all God’s people. Indeed, God’s people themselves have received mercy from God, since they were rescued out of Egypt by his hand, and he gave to them a Promised Land that they did not deserve. The holy God has called a holy people, to be separate from evil round about; but the same God who is holy is also compassionate. So his people, too, are to show compassion, shining like God upon those around them. Their own chequered and difficult past should be the touchstone, reminding them that all that they have is given, not earned, and that God is not stingy with his favor.

The old covenant people of God, then, were given practical details concerning how they should act, both towards foreigners and towards those in the lamentable institution of slavery. These details are in harmony with the great transformation that takes place when God assumes humanity, coming among us. Because of the Incarnation, we are now in a position to say, “neither slave nor free,” and to see how it is that the “poor” are blessed by God! Riches, given to some so that they may bless others, are now shown to be what they are— mere shadows of what God intends to give to all of his children, all of those who are in Christ. We are called to a different kind of wealth—to be “rich” towards God. Our mother, the Theotokos, can help us in this, for she herself learned to “treasure up” true riches in her heart, and to seek what was truly important. Within herself she harbored the treasure not only of Israel, but of all nations—the God-Man himself. Her body was his temple, and he came to make of each of us (and all of us together) a temple for the Holy Spirit!

As we consider these matters, we have before us the politically charged question concerning refugees and migrants from Syria and other middle eastern countries. On this matter, and the best policy for a country to follow, Christians can, it seems, agree to disagree. What some might consider a reasonable extension on a national level of personal service to others, others might consider the equivalent to welcoming in the Trojan Horse. It is clear that we are told, personally, to turn the other cheek; but Christians disagree concerning the calling of an entire nation to be pacifist or to forsake the death penalty. What was demanded of the Hebrew nation as a theocracy cannot be demanded of a secular state—nor, of course, did Israel accept in strangers without qualification, and in fact at one point, paid the price for such an unwise welcome. Moreover, in our context, we see at a greater length and in greater detail the turmoil of all the nations, not simply of those on our doorsteps. This renders the task of succor gargantuan. All this being said, there is one route not open to us: we are not free to turn a blind eye to those who are in distress, nor to dismiss them. My more astute readers may glean from these comments that I am on the more conservative side of the spectrum, probably because as a Salvation Army officer I saw many who “worked the system” and I do not have a sentimental view of the poor as a result. I have also studied the Qur’an and Islam, and am convinced that an authentic reading and understanding of these should give us pause concerning how the fabric of society might be shockingly altered by an open door policy. Yet those of who have conservative political views and who are dubious concerning opening the borders must certainly think creatively about other ways to offer aid to those who are truly in need across the seas. And nearer to home, works like FOCUS should not simply be supported, but given practical support by many more of us! The gospel readings for these past few weeks, Ephesians’ reminder that we are one body with Christians across the globe and the ages, and the Deuteronomic call to empathy and action must be obeyed in some form!

This weekend we also remember two of our fathers in Christ, who held contrasting positions in their culture: the slave Onesimus and his earthly master Philemon. It would seem that, with the intervention of the apostle Paul, they became brothers and colleagues, rather than slave and master. It is said of Philemon and his wife Apphia that they dedicated their lives to serving the poor in the Church. And both former slave and master, with his wife, are numbered among the seventy and were martyred for Christ. Former slave and master also became bishops in the Church, teachers who direct our paths to see God’s generosity even more clearly: by them we can learn both how to be humbled and how to be lifted up. Onesimus, like the Hebrews, remembered that he was a slave, and served the apostles and the Church; Philemon learned, with the Lord, to be the servant of all, and indicates to us where true riches lie. Together their lives show how the coming of Christ relativizes differences of human status, and shine the divine light upon what is truly important: heeding the Holy Spirit, in whom is the “treasury of blessings,” and giver of life.

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