Wednesday of Week 30 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 6:1-9

Paul continues speaking about relationships in the home. Today he speaks of children and slaves. (The Latin word familia includes the whole household: parents, children and servants, who all lived under one roof.)

Children are to obey their parents – in the Lord. This means that they hear in their parents the voice of God; in obeying them, they obey the Lord. This, of course, presumes that what parents tell their children to do is in accordance with truth, love and justice. Children are not bound to follow immoral instructions; on the contrary, they should reject them.

The Fourth Commandment is quoted: “Honour your father and mother.” It is called the “first commandment with a promise”. The reward promised to filial obedience is “prosperity and a long life in the land”. This is a reference to the book of Deuteronomy where the “promise” was the ultimate occupation of the land of Palestine, the Promised Land. Here, the “land” is rather the life without end that Christ brings. This is the same meaning as in the Beatitude: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.” Where the “land” refers, as do the rest of the Beatitudes, to the Kingdom.

Parents, too, are reminded that there is a limit to their authority. That limit is set by the love and respect that the Gospel calls for in all human relationships. “Never drive your children to resentment.” Children will not always be happy with the decisions of their parents but, where there is clearly a genuine care for their well-being, long-term resentment will not be a problem. Children do have a great sense of justice and fairness.

Next, Paul addresses slaves. We come to a practice which to us, now, is completely unacceptable. We need to remind ourselves that it has been only in the relatively recent past that the institution of slavery has been seen as morally unacceptable. Up to that time, it was practiced as a perfectly normal arrangement by nearly every society. Even the Church did not address it as a problem for a long time. The question in Paul’s time was not the institution of slavery, but rather what both the Old and New Testaments taught about the proper treatment of slaves.

It needs to be said that many slaves even in ancient times would often have been treated well and seen as integral parts of the household. They were given a level of love, respect and care. Even so, the idea behind slavery, that people could be reduced to the level of animals or objects to be bought and sold, and to be the property of other human beings, is seen now as anathema and a violation of personal dignity.

Paul, then, calls on slaves to be totally obedient to their “masters”.

“The Greek for this word [‘masters’], from which our English term ‘despot’ is derived, indicates the owner’s absolute authority over his slave. Roman slaves had no legal rights, their fates being entirely in their masters’ hands. Slavery was a basic element of Roman society, and the impact of Christianity upon slaves was a vital concern. Guidance for the conduct of Christian master and their slaves was essential.” (Jerusalem Bible)

The slaves, then, are to see the person of Christ in their masters and so they behave well not just to please their employers but because, as Christians themselves, they are – like all other Christians – slaves of Christ.

Everyone, be they slave or free, will find the same reward for all the good they do. A slave might be recognised as such by his status but, in practice, he was to be loved as a brother in Christ. We see Paul express this attitude in his letter to Philemon, which deals with the treatment of a slave who has run away.

There is a word, too, for the masters. Once again, as with husbands and wives, children and parents, Paul emphasises that there are mutual responsibilities on both sides. They are to treat their slaves well, with respect and without threats. Both master and slave are serving the very same Master, who is not in the least impressed by social status.

We have here in this comment of Paul, already the seed of the end of slavery – the equal and inviolable dignity of every person. Freedom is everyone’s right; no one can ever belong, as a piece of property, to another person.

In reading this passage, we need to reflect on the way we treat our children today. In some ways, the challenges facing parents in modern society are far greater than in the past but the basic principles remain the same.

We do not have – at least in most societies now – slaves in the strict sense, but there are still great gaps in the social status of people. There is still a huge level of exploitation within countries and between countries over people who are employed to work for us. There are still countries who subjugate some groups of people to forced labor. As well, we have the enormous problem of child labour and what sometimes is tantamount to slavery involving thousands of people. Economic and sexual abuse are rampant. The ‘sex trade’ involves the abduction and virtual slavery of thousands of young girls. The main reason for its existence is the market which so-called ‘free people’ provide.

In many ways, we have little cause to criticise the society of Paul’s day.

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