Slavery/servanthood is a form of existence that has thankfully disappeared from most of western society, though instances of it still seem to perdure in some parts of the world. While the external constraints that slavery enforces on people are degrading, it is the internal capitulation to these shackles that is by far the worse condition.
This thought comes to mind from the biblical readings presented us in today’s liturgical selections. They derive from Paul’s letter to the Romans and Luke’s gospel. They both address the issue of servant/slave. They do so, however, not in socio-economic terms, but in inner soul-terms of sin. And they proceed, especially Paul, in a graded or progressive manner.
He presents sin as if it were something outside or beyond ourselves, or, at least, our bodies, as in his remark that "…sin must not reign over your mortal bodies, so that you obey their desires". He seems to address "you" as over against one’s sin-controlled body. And he proceeds to admonish his readers "not to present parts of your bodies to sin" as if sin, bodies and "you" were three separate elements, in need of coordination.
Luke’s parable of the servant, especially the wicked one, clearly describes the dire situation he finds himself in upon the master’s return: he "…shall be beaten severely". But, unpleasant as this is, there is no certain indication that this servant has lost his job, especially in the light of Luke’s comment about a fellow-servant who was less informed about the master’s expectations, and who will "…be beaten only lightly". In each case, it seems that the wrong-doing of these servants did not completely undo their status in the master’s judgment.
There is a resemblance in Paul’s and Luke’s accounts of the impact that sin has on us, like any slavery situation in which people find themselves. It’s a progressive matter. Just as socio-economic slavery moves from a less damaging external situation to the more worrisome condition of distorting the internal status of a person, so sin works on us in stages, from the less controlling influence on our external behavior, to a more insidious penetration of our inner self. We can sustain a beating for succumbing to temptation, so long as we retain some status as a "steward …in charge…" of others.
Sin is a movement toward slavery and lowly servanthood. We can’t avoid it completely, but, with God’s help, we can aim at Paul’s upbeat vision for his Roman readership: "Freed from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness."
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.